Judge Clark Douglas thinks Mona Lisa is smiling because she just finished a really good cheeseburger.
Our review of Mona Lisa Smile, published March 16th, 2004, is also available.
In a world that told them how to think, she showed them how to live.
"Not all who wander are aimless. Especially not those who seek truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image."
Facts of the Case
In 1953, the women-only Wellesley College was regarded as one of the most conservative schools in the country. It certainly seemed to be an odd place for a teacher like Katherine Watson (Julia Robert, Sleeping with the Enemy) to land a job. Watson is a UCLA graduate whose "California values" seem to clash with the rigid formalism of Wellesley, and many faculty members wonder whether Watson will be able to teach the students much of anything. Things go rather poorly at first, as Watson is nearly eaten alive (figuratively speaking) by her overeager students. However, she's determined not to let the bad start get to her. She will make a difference in the lives of these young women, even if it means re-writing the rulebook on how classes at Wellesley are taught.
There is a curious battle taking place within the confines of Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile. In one corner, we have a perfectly pedestrian plot that peddles predictable developments and simplistic life lessons. In the other corner, we have a talented cast and crew that are clearly putting a great deal of work into making the film a successful and moving experience. When the dust settles, does one remember the virtues or the problems? I'm going to go with the virtues, though a strong case can certainly be made for the opposing view.
One of the things that intrigues me most about this particular variation on the, "cool new teacher inspires students" storyline is that these students do not require additional knowledge but rather additional wisdom. They know just about everything you could want a student to know on paper; these are intelligent young women who excel at just about everything they do. It's just that their vision for their own lives is so exasperatingly narrow. These women could be just about anything: lawyers, doctors, scientists, business executives, you name it. Sadly, most of them have absolutely no interest in actually achieving these things. They are living in a culture that has programmed them to believe that there is absolutely no greater achievement in life than to get married to a respectable man and to be the perfect housewife. Who wants to be a successful attorney when you could be cooking and cleaning for John Q. Moneybags?
In order to change this (Wellesley-endorsed) mindset, Watson has to do more than simply declare, "This isn't so; you should feel this way instead." She has to go about the complicated process of fundamentally changing the manner in which her students think; to truly get them to form their own beliefs, feelings and opinions. When she asks her students about some well-known paintings, they give her routine and predictable answers that they have learned from textbooks. They can speak knowledgably on art as long as they are able to simply adopt the viewpoint of some authority figure. Watson changes tack by showing her students pieces of art that aren't in the textbook. "Is it any good? Is it art? Who decides? What do you think?" It's simultaneously amusing and saddening to see just how initially mortified these students are at the prospect of being forced to analyze the art on their own without a pre-approved, "correct answer."
With the exception of Watson, most of the characters are written in fairly broad, one-dimensional strokes. Even so, most of the major characters still work thanks to nuanced work from the cast. They bring their roles a dimension that isn't found on the printed page. Consider Kirsten Dunst's (Spider-Man) Elizabeth Warren, for example (no relation to the current chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel). As far as the dialogue is concerned, she's nothing but contemptuous and vile throughout the majority of the film's running time. Even so, Dunst infuses the character with a buried pain that quietly works its way to the surface. It's a strong performance that makes the character more complex than the character has a right to be. Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart) is warm and appealing in her role, while Ginnifer Goodwin (He's Just Not That Into You) and Julia Stiles (The Bourne Supremacy) does stellar work as well.
Even so, the film is Roberts' to carry, and she pulls off that task with aplomb. Honestly, I've never been one of the actresses' biggest fans, as I often find her performances a little too rigid and undefined to make a big impression. She starts out that way in Mona Lisa Smile, but as her character becomes increasingly passionate the actress comes to life. A bitterly angry speech to her students late in the film particularly resonates, as does the joy Roberts starts to demonstrate once she becomes more comfortable with her surroundings.
Sony's Blu-ray release is stellar if not particularly stunning. The imagery of the film is quite lovely, as the strong period design has been creating with precision and loving detail, which makes the movie an ideal candidate for hi-def. However, there are a few moments that seem a bit too flat (along with a few more than seem a bit too soft). It's not bad, but the film just doesn't quite leap off the screen the way it ought to. Flesh tones are warm and accurate while blacks are reasonably deep. Audio is just fine, with Rachel Portman's typically sensitive score blending nicely with the understated sound design. Extras are all hauled over from the DVD: a small handful of EPK-style featurettes, an Elton John music video and a trailer. All presented in standard-def. Ho-hum.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The nuance of the performances is frequently undercut by the obvious writing, which too often reduces these supposedly intelligent characters to cardboard cutout versions of themselves. Likewise, the social issues being discussed also lose their punch due to the movie's tendency to set up simplistic hero vs. villain scenarios (see the noble teacher battle the evil board chairman!). Basically, Mona Lisa Smile is a glorified made-for-TV movie.
While I find Mona Lisa Smile to be severely lacking in certain areas, I must confess that I also find the film involving and moving. It's worth a look, though the Blu-ray offers little incentive to upgrade if you own the DVD.
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