Mona Lisa Smile Movie Review

"Mona Lisa Smile" is such an appalling waste of talent it actually made me mad. Scratch that -- furious.

An ironically conformist piece of mock-intellectual fluff about a forward-thinking art history professor (Julia Roberts) rocking the boat at uppity, conservative, marriage-grooming Wellesley College in the 1950s, I'd call it an estrogen-infused "Dead Poet's Society," but even that would be giving the picture too much credit for originality.

To wit, the opening voice-over in which we're told "this bohemian from California...didn't come to Wellesley to fit in. She came because she wanted to make a difference." This gives way to a parade of Eisenhower-era stock characters, like the school's board of directors who bristle at Roberts' "subversive" audacity for, among other things, suggesting that "Picasso will do for the 20th century what Michelangelo did for the Renaissance."

"Are you're saying all these modern canvases splattered with dripped paint compare to the Sistine Chapel?" sniffs one stuffy, gruff old fart, angling for audience hisses as if he were tying Roberts to a train track while twisting his mustache.

Inundated with such hackneyed bluster from traditionalist scourges, Roberts can't even find acceptance in her own classroom, where her supposedly refined, well-bred students -- all tweed skirts and white gloves -- practically heckle her with their textbook foreknowledge of her syllabus. So, of course, she switches gears, teaching them about modern art, challenging their attitudes and values, and asking questions like, "What is art? What makes it good or bad? What makes it unique?" But such topics are given only lip service, in favor of an insultingly predictable plot about these socially corseted young ladies being led toward the light of pre-1960s sexual egalitarianism.

Plucky Roberts helps one student (Julia Stiles) apply to law school behind a fiancé's back. She butts heads with the oppressive alumni president's haughty daughter (a character so shallow that even Kirsten Dunst can't make her interesting), who follows the path expected of her ("No woman chooses not to have a home," she scoffs) and winds up in a miserable marriage. And our liberating heroine is admired by a troubled but open-minded and sexually active wildflower (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who recently had an affair with the same handsome, worldly Italian professor (Dominic West) that has caught Roberts' eye.

Director Mike Newell ("Pushing Tin,""Donnie Brasco," "Four Weddings and a Funeral") gives short shrift to Gyllenhaal ("Secretary") and the film's only other atypical, appealing character, a cheery but ill-at-ease sweetheart played by the marvelous, adorable Ginnifer Goodwin (TV's "Ed"), who does what she can with an obligatory character -- the girl considered less attractive in this movie of Hollywood sensibilities because she's (gasp!) a size 10! Oh, the poor dear. She'll be lucky to find any man at all!

Also sacrificed to this pageant of tiresome clichés are Juliet Stevenson as the school nurse (and token lesbian), fired for advocating contraception, and the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden (brilliant in this year's "Mystic River") as an etiquette teacher and Roberts' timid, tightly wound, spinster housemate.

As for the star herself, Roberts brings considerable charm and her usual poised yet self-doubting accessibility to a brassy, telegraphed role that she could play in her sleep. But that's not enough to make this incongruously ahead-of-her-time character compelling. It's difficult to rally behind someone who has such blatant lessons to learn herself about women making their own choices ("To you a housewife is someone who sold her soul for a Colonial," say the character you're supposed to least expect it from), and who is so naive and contradictory as to believe that Wellesley would "turn out tomorrow's leaders" even though she knows it's "the most conservative college in the nation."

If the conservatives Roberts comes up against presented more than a one-dimensional challenge, the skilled actresses squandered in "Mona Lisa Smile" might have had something more to work with than 50-year-old paper-doll stereotypes that might as well be from kitchen-appliance ads in musty Life magazines.

But all this movie does is line up those stereotypes, then allow Roberts and her newly liberated students to knock them down in the most trite, routine, heart-tugging manner imaginable.


Comments

Mona Lisa Smile Rating

" Unbearable "

Rating: PG-13, WIDE: Friday, December 19, 2003

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