December 08, 2003

Movie Review – Mona Lisa Smile

A Trip Down Memory Lane
By Fred H. Arm
Take a free-spirited UC Berkeley graduate, Katherine Watson, JULIA ROBERTS, set in 1953 and give her a new job teaching art history to a bunch of pretentious debutantes at the conservative bastion of Wellesley College for Women near Boston, and you have the makings for some interesting cultural collisions. For dinosaurs like me, this film falls short of meeting such a delicious prospect. The film speaks mainly to young college women in the twenties who were not even a gleam in their daddy’s eyes during this period. Although I attended the screening with a majority of young, twenty-something and seemingly delighted women, being from this period precluded me from sharing their enthusiasm.

In the fifties, despite the academic excellence offered for the education of women, the primary measure of the day was how well the students married rather than to prepare them for professional achievement. Upon her arrival at Wellesley, Katherine Watson declines the apartment provided by the College since it had strict rules against male visitors and she could not have a hot plate. Instead, she finds a room in the home of Nancy Abbey, MARCIA GAY HARDIN, who provides a delightful portrayal of a compulsive and rigid matron bogged down with traditional mores. Unfortunately, the film neglects many ripe opportunities for Nancy to deliver a few comedic sequences with panache and style. Instead the wooden Katherine drags the film along with her “Mona Lisa Smile” that is as tiring and implausible as the plot.

The student leads are introduced in a comparatively licentious dorm atmosphere, suggesting homosexual affiliations abound when this is hardly the case. This sort of open, physical and sexual affection rarely exists on today’s campuses, or anywhere else to such an extreme. Betty Warren, KIRSTEN DUNST, portrays a bitchy soon to be married student who thinks nothing of belittling her comrades to the point of outrage, particularly the chubby Constance Baker, GINNIFER GOODWIN. One scene practically screams for Baker to pummel the bitchy Warren, but leaves us unrequited to grovel in frustration and disappointment.
MonaLisaSmileJuliaClass.jpgIn the opening classroom scene, the know-it-all new students, who each provide a surprising in-depth analysis of the art slides she has projected on the screen, buffet Katherine mercilessly with their snappy answers. In 1953, the students of the time would never disrespect a new professor to that degree, nor would they likely have studied that intensely beforehand, apparently to show up their new teacher. However, to the younger audiences, such ignorance is bliss. Nevertheless, here is another golden opportunity missed by director, Mike Newell for the spirited teacher to nail the students in a humorous way on the spot. Instead, we have to wait for another classroom scene where she retaliates in a lukewarm manner. The effect is almost lame rather than revengefully as satisfying as the setup suggests it could be.

The President of the school, Jocelyn Carr, MARIAN SELDES, is well cast as the stiff defender of chastity and purity of the institution and the standards it sets for its faculty. However, the male lead in the film, Bill Dunbar, DOMINIC WEST, is openly a Bon Vivant who thinks nothing of bedding down members of the willing student body, not even if they are married to someone else. Katherine’s alleged modern persona would never fall for this lecherous gadabout nor would the College have allowed this sort of behavior to continue unchecked. Roberts is miscast in this role as well as West.

The student’s personalities however are more 21st Century rather than from the fifties. Much is crammed into this film in a vain attempt to give it substance, yet one is left feeling flat, that more was needed to make the scenes sparkle with vibrancy. Although there were some interesting nostalgic forays into how women were viewed as only prospective wives and mothers, the story did not have enough power to elevate it from soapy melodrama. Newell’s attempt at subtlety in delivering his actor’s scenes are brilliantly conceived, yet feel much like an exquisitely designed picture frame containing a mediocre painting. For you twenty-something women and nostalgia buffs, this film could be a must see. For those of us who have been there and done that, well--maybe.

Opens everywhere on December 19th.

Posted by fredarm at December 8, 2003 09:41 AM

Beautiful Site

Posted by: We Live Together at July 12, 2004 07:20 PM
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