Playing Mona Lisa Movie Review
Claire Goldstein is all giddy and aglow because last night her wonderful, wonderful boyfriend asked for her hand in marriage. Unfortunately it's morning now, he's sober, and not only has be blacked out popping the question, but he's also started thinking maybe they shouldn't see each other anymore.
That's only the beginning of Claire's problems in "Playing Mona Lisa," a breakup recovery screwball comedy that in many marvelous ways invokes the spirit of Woody Allen -- if Woody Allen were a comely, quizzical, capriciously miserable 23-year-old redhead from San Francisco.
Trying to withdraw from the world by staying in bed and eating Ho-Hos by the boxful, poor Claire (the comically gifted Alicia Witt) can't even wallow in self-pity to her satisfaction because her busybody family keeps showing up to chicken-soup her heart with useless anecdotes and unsolicited advice.
Then comes the earthquake that gets her building condemned, forcing her to move back in with her flaky folks (Marlo Thomas and Elliott Gould) and bear bitter witness to her blissful sister's wedding preparations.
Is it any wonder then that she meets the cutest guy she's ever seen while running down the street crying, sporting bed hair, streaked mascara and penguin slippers? Arrgh!
"Playing Mona Lisa" is the kind of irony-amplified comedy that makes your cheeks hurt, both from laughing out loud and from smiling an I've-been-there smile. It's filled with crafty, personified little chuckles that come from every corner of the deftly comical screenplay -- and from every character brought to life by the picture's sublime cast.
Witt finds just the right humorous tone in Claire's heartbroken daze -- a condition her misery-relishing video clerk pal Arthur (sardonic Johnny Galecki) is more than happy to nourish. "Welcome to the land of the perpetually depressed," he moans. "I'll be your tour guide."
Brooke Langton ("The Replacements") is magnetically vivacious and flirtatious as Sabrina, a girlfriend ready to take Claire partying and teach her the secret to getting attention from men: Make eye contact with a sly smile that says you don't care. (Sabrina's name for this technique is where the title comes from, and it's a rather forced gimmick the movie could have done without.)
As Claire's parents, Thomas and Gould are a great scene-stealing duo who abscond with almost a whole reel of the movie with a scene in which they accidentally get stoned off of tainted paté at their elder daughter's wedding rehearsal.
Another performance of note: Harvey Fierstein gets to be both funny and sage as Claire's mentor at the conservatory of music. She's a talented, if insecure, concert pianist -- and so is Witt in real life, so the concert scenes add to the film an additional, curious layer of entertainment value.
Jewish comedy stereotypes are used to excess in "Mona Lisa," although first-time director Matthew Huffman encourages his actors to develop the cliché supporting characters beyond their function in the story. He sometimes lets the movie's slapstick elements get away from him too, giving the picture something of an uneven finish. But this kind of idiosyncratic comedy is never perfect, and the kind of sharp, witty writing he has to work with here can make up for a lot.
Marni Freedman and Carlos de los Rios adapted the screenplay from Freedman's stage production, "Two Goldsteins On Acid" (a much better title that alludes to the aforementioned scene with the tripping parents). Their dialogue is not only delightfully quotable, but their plot structure is so cagey that when Claire's bad luck looks to reach epidemic proportions, well-aimed colliding coincidences conspire to accelerate the awkward comedy even more -- adding a couple big, funny twists to what was already a entertaining movie through and through.