Mona Lisa Smile (2003) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some sexual content and mature themes
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dominic West, Ginnifer Goodwin, Marcia Gay Harden, Juliet Stevenson
Director: Mike Newell
Screenplay: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
Review published December 20, 2003
When someone tells you, "Your heart was in the right place", or "You meant well", it's one of those backhanded compliments where you can rest assured that what this person's really trying to say is, "You screwed up". Mona Lisa Smile's heart is in the right place. Where its head is, no one can know. It probably had gotten chopped off early on, right around the time when it went through the Hollywood assembly line. It's sometimes an irony when the main problem of the movie is summarized within the movie itself, as there is a subplot involving making your own replica of a Van Gogh painting using a paint-by-numbers kit. I suspect that the company that puts out that product must have also crafted one for screenplays as well.
Mona Lisa Smile is set in 1953, at Wellesley College for women. This college prides itself in conforming to the traditions of the time, and regardless of the education earned, the expectation is that the women will never really apply it, as they are expected to be married and have families instead. Enter Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), coming from the much more liberal California, accepting a teaching gig to instruct art history to the young ladies. When the class seems to be far ahead of her intended curriculum, she decides to stop teaching them what to think, but how to think for themselves. However, this is a college that prides itself on instructing the women the rights and wrongs of being a women, and there's little room for the creative though process that Watson is espousing.
In most aspects of the film, the makings of a fine movie seem to be in place. There's a proven quality lead in Julia Roberts, and an appealing supporting cast of young women in Stiles (A Guy Thing), Dunst (Spider-Man), Gyllenhaal (Adaptation.), and Goodwin (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton). The direction by Mike Newell (Four Wedding and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) seems competent enough to carry the load. The costumes design by Michael Dennison (Sophie's Choice) is also particularly impressive. It's a good looking film with a good looking cast.
Where the film ultimately falls short is in the presentation itself, with such a formulaic storyline and mechanical plotting, you can almost hear the gears shifting and wheels turning in the background. Much of this stems from the hackneyed script by the writing team of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, who have collaborated on many films that most people could do without, including The Beverly Hillbillies, The Legend of Billie Jean, and Superman IV). How they have managed to make a living writing such bad material probably has to do with their willingness to get their script to conform to the wishes of the producers and industry hacks, which is precisely the kind of thinking that produces manipulative, trite material like Mona Lisa Smile.
It's a film full of many ironies, perhaps none grander than the fact that it's a story that exalts nonconformity, while at the same time, being completely traditional and afraid to paint anything outside the numbers. While it may still look like a pretty picture in the end, what it lacks is inspiration, or even an original thought, afraid of upsetting the delicate balance of formula elements dictated in the instructions that were in the box this product came in.
©2003 Vince Leo