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Case Number 04085

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Mona Lisa Smile

Sony // 2003 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Elizabeth Skipper (Retired) // March 16th, 2004

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our review of Mona Lisa Smile (Blu-Ray), published February 22nd, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

"You may all be here for an easy A, but the grade that matters the most is the one [your husband] gives you…"

Opening Statement

Mona Lisa Smile is what happens when two male writers and a male director are allowed to tackle the issue of women in the 1950s and the burgeoning feminist movement.

Never send a man to do a woman's job…

Facts of the Case

It's the fall of 1953, and Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman) has come to Wellesley College to teach art history. In her 30s, unmarried, and with an advanced degree, she is quickly labeled a free spirit and subversive. And although Katherine has come because she wants to challenge and be challenged by the "brightest women in the country," she soon discovers that the only degrees these women are pursuing are their MRSs.

Wellesley, it seems, is nothing more than an advanced finishing school, even offering such classes as speech, elocution, and poise. It produces students like Betty (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man), who writes articles celebrating the return of women to the home after World War II, and Joan (Julia Stiles, 10 Things I Hate About You), who is studying pre-law but is shocked by the prospect of going to law school. ("After graduation, I plan to be married." "And then?" "And then I will be married.")

Of course, it also produces students like Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary), who possesses a diaphragm (illegal in Massachusetts in 1953) and has affairs with her Italian professor and a married psychologist. But the Giselles are few and far between and are judged harshly for their behavior by the Bettys and Joans of the school.

And Katherine, surprised and dismayed by her students' limited views and subsequent choices, is left wondering if she can make any difference at all.

The Evidence

As it turns out, she can't and she doesn't. Although her students all claim to be affected by her wise words and the supposedly revolutionary example she sets, they don't actually do anything any differently than they would have had she never set foot on campus. Despite this ineffectiveness, though, we are supposed to be left feeling empowered and warm and fuzzy by Mona Lisa Smile's moral: every choice is valid; what's important is having a choice in the first place. So even though nobody actually chooses the option Katherine offers, it's okay, because at least they have a choice in the matter.

That's all well and good except for one thing: women in 1953 didn't actually have such choices. In 2004, it's easy to celebrate a woman's decision to stay home with her children because it is a conscious choice. She knows she is capable of and able to embark on any career she likes. The sky, as they say, is the limit. So her choice to stay home is exactly that-a choice.

But in 1953, women weren't taught they were capable of pursuing any career, and they certainly weren't easily able to do so, as they were expected to solely care for the children and tend to the household duties. As Joan's fiancé (Topher Grace, That '70s Show) puts it, "That's an awful long commute to get dinner on the table at five o'clock." So how can a few semi-radical months with Katherine even begin to chip away at a lifetime of ingrained senses of duty, responsibility, and gender roles? She offers them an alternative, yes, but none of the women in Mona Lisa Smile actually believes it to be plausible or viable. In other words, none of the women actually has a choice. Not much left to celebrate, is there?

And that's what happens when three men (director Mike Newell and writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal) attempt to tell a women's story. On the surface, this trio got it right-they showed us how stifling the '50s were for women, how difficult it would have been to be anything but a complete conformist—but they didn't go any deeper. The beginning of the modern women's movement is a complicated and controversial subject and deserves a movie that reflects its complexity. It deserves more than the romantic dramedy that is Mona Lisa Smile. I have no problem with said genre; I merely want it to recognize its limitations.

But there is still one reason to celebrate: Maggie Gyllenhaal. While Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles give the most stilted performances of their careers (though, to give the benefit of the doubt to them and to director Newell, perhaps that was the point—perhaps they were portraying characters who were uncomfortable in their own skin), Gyllenhaal, as always, is fluid and effortless. She isn't acting; she just is.

Unfortunately, the celebration ends with her. The audio and video transfers can be summed up with one word: "eh." There's nothing particularly wrong with them, but there's nothing particularly right with them either. The 1.85:1 video is error free, but that doesn't make it good. Its colors are washed out, its blacks are wimpy, and it's not nearly as crisp and sharp as it should be for a recent DVD of a recent box-office release. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio follows suit, with very little use of the surrounds and the subwoofer and levels that had me adjusting the volume for nearly every scene.

The bonus features don't offer much to write home about either. They consist of:

• "Art Forum" (6 minutes): Do I really care what actors think about art?
• "College Then and Now" (14 minutes): Spliced in with cast and crew interviews are statistics about how today's college experience differs from 1953's.
• "What Women Wanted" (10 minutes): Do I really care what actors think about women in the '50s?
• Music video for Elton John's "Heart of Every Girl," followed by a promo for the soundtrack to Mona Lisa Smile
• Filmographies for Mike Newell, Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Marcia Gay Harden
• Trailers for 13 Going on 30, Spider-Man 2, Big Fish, Something's Gotta Give, The Company, 50 First Dates, My Best Friend's Wedding, America's Sweethearts, and Stepmom

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Hey, at least women in the 1950s could afford to stay home and take care of the children, cook, and clean. Women today have to do all that while working too. See where the feminist movement has gotten us?

Nope, sorry, I can't even pretend to believe that argument for the sake of being contrary. As the movie tried to explain, it's all about having choices. At least today those choices are real and attainable.

Closing Statement

It's Dead Poets Society without the angst, without the passion, without, well, everything that made it good. And with middling transfers, boring extras, and an ending that will leave you angry or at least unfulfilled, even Maggie Gyllenhaal can't save Mona Lisa Smile.

The Verdict

Mona Lisa Smile would be found guilty of violating the ERA, if the amendment had ever been approved. Instead it's accused of suborning the indentured servitude of women and is sentenced to a 30 percent pay cut.

Case adjourned.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 86
Audio: 86
Extras: 76
Acting: 93
Story: 75
Judgment: 78

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• English
• French
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Comedy
• Drama
• Romance
• Romantic Comedies

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurettes: "Art Forum," "College Then and Now," "What Women Wanted: 1953"
• Music Video for "Heart of Every Girl" by Elton John and Soundtrack Promo
• Filmographies for Director Mike Newell, Writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Marcia Gay Harden
• Trailers for 13 Going on 30, Spider-Man 2, Big Fish, Something's Gotta Give, The Company, 50 First Dates, My Best Friend's Wedding, America's Sweethearts, and Stepmom


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