Insufferably written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile is a hopeless lesson on how to beat a dead horse. Berkeley bohemian Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) moves to New England to teach art history at Wellesley’s chicken coop and possibly shake things up a bit, but isn’t prepared to handle The Attack of the Robot Women. Everyone in Dead Girls Society, err, Mona Lisa Smile wears their one character trait like a placard. What with all the ghouls on parade, you’d think cutie-pie Roberts had just stepped into an alternate universe: Donna Mitchell and Kirsten Dunst aim dead-square for Mommie Dearest and Christina Crawford; the Ms. Manners played by Marcia Gay Harden suggests that Katherine should also lodge a stick in her ass; and Juliet Stevenson, as a nurse whose “companion” of 30 years just passed away, is fired for supplying girls with birth control. Welcome to the 1950s! After her catty, overly prepared students negotiate an entire semester’s syllabus in a matter of seconds, Katherine must rethink her battle plan. Because Wellesley is essentially a finishing school disguised as a college, the “forward-thinking” professor decides to teach her hens that there’s more to life than vacuuming and making meatloaf. But, get this: in the end, they teach her that there’s more to life than making elaborate points. I teach you, you teach me. Isn’t that cute? Manufactured to appeal to liberals and conservatives alike (it’s okay to fuck with tradition, but it’s also sometimes okay to paint by numbers), the golly-gee Mona Lisa Smile is a work of abject delusion. It’s impossible to miss any of the film’s irony considering how hard the filmmakers work to shove their subversions into the spectator’s face. Every exchange, every aside (someone actually provides an impromptu deconstruction of “keeping up with the Joneses”), even every song (a group of boys sing “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” on stage) points to the traditional, shoulda-woulda bubble of the era that Katherine is trying to deflate. There’s lots of talk about Katherine and those before her (namely the lesbian nurse) being “subversive,” and there’s an overwhelming notion here that the filmmakers think they’re being shocking. Sorry, but casting Tori Amos as a wedding singer isn’t exactly subversive. (If Maggie Gyllenhaal escapes unscathed, that’s because she’s the only one not trying to channel Julia Child or Joan of Arc into her performance.) The film’s great irony is that Katherine refuses to play with a syllabus but the film itself is unbearably schematic.
- Mike Newell
- Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
- Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, Topher Grace
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