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MONA LISA SMILE

2003, dir. Mike Newell
117 min. Rated PG-13.
Starring: Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Review by Noel Wood

The last thing I'd have expected to see during a busy holiday season is the year's biggest Chick Flick; but sure enough, thanks to the beauty of free advanced screenings, there I was, watching people win Lady Remington shaver kits and Celine Dion perfume gift sets. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not the type who is adamantly opposed to the non-genre of female-geared cinema. One of my all-time favorite movies is Peter Jackson's HEAVENLY CREATURES, which was pointed out to me at one point as "a total chick-flick" by a member of the opposite sex. I didn't realize it at the time, but she was pretty much right on that count. It was a bit embarassing at the time, not as bad as my friend who watched The Other Half for six months before realizing that it was a show for women, but embarassing nonetheless.

Still, I can handle an occasional y-chromosome film more than most heterosexual males can. I guess it comes with seeing as much stuff as I do and growing an ever-thickening skin. I enjoyed TITANIC. I saw MERMAIDS in the theater. Hell, I even went out and willingly saw TUMBLEWEEDS and YOU CAN COUNT ON ME. By myself. I can take it.

MONA LISA SMILE, or as I like to call it, DEAD ARTISTS' SOCIETY is this year's big Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves film, following in the footsteps of last year's THE HOURS. Taking place at Wellesley College, one of the country's most prominent women's universities, in the year 1953, it takes a look at a progressive teacher and the lives that she touches. Or something like that. You see, Julia Roberts is the star of this film, and after the body of work she's amassed, I just can't buy her as a strong-willed feminist woman. Oh, sure, she was convincing in ERIN BROCKOVICH, but that's because her character was still using feminine wildes to get her way. I'm talking the Julia Roberts who cut her rather-prominent teeth in roles that set women back decades, citing fare such as PRETTY WOMAN, SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, and MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING. Oh sure, drag up the past you say, but something's got to be said about putting a star in the lead here who more or less exemplifies everything that's wrong with the way women are percevied in the media. Roberts, with her stick figure frame and collagen-swollen lips, has spent years indirectly telling women that beauty is achieved by crash diets and injecting proteins into your body.

But I digress. Fortunately, the rest of the cast is anchored with slightly more realistic women, which makes up for a lot of the inherent flaws of Julia Roberts' casting.

The movie begins at the start of the school year at Wellesley, where Roberts' Katherine Watson is beginning her year as the new Art History teacher. She is taken aback at how conservative the living situation is, and is even more blown away by the fact that her entire class seems to know the material she's covering better than he does. Miss Watson learns to adapt, and takes a vested interest in shaping the lives of her students. Over time, she begins to notice that any sort of challenge to tradition in the school is met with consequenses. One of the first members of the faculty she meets, a lesbian nurse, is dismissed for distributing contraceptives. Katherine gets on the bad side of a student named Betty when she dares demand that the newlywed student meet the same criteria as the the other girls. Betty's mother happens to be the head of the Alumni Association too, so she's not the best one to piss off.

As she finds her way along, she is forced to choose between her longterm beau back home in California or a charming Italian teacher at the school. She is the subject of rumors and gossip, and her employment situation is put in jeopardy. Unfortunately, nobody stands on their desks and yells "O Captain my Captain". Finally, Katherine realizes that the girls at Wellesley are basically getting these high-priced educations as lessons on how to be nothing more than good little housewives. When one of her best students expresses a faint desire to go to law school, Katherine makes it her mission to deliver her from this life of domestic mediocrity and urges her to apply. Unfortunately, Miss Watson realizes that perhaps not everyone out there is prepared to step out of the "rules" that society has laid forth regarding a woman's role.

Unfortunately for it, MONA LISA SMILE is about as transparent as Saran Wrap. From the first scene, you can pretty much put together exactly what's going to happen along the way. If you can't figure out which girls are going to end up which way or whether or not Katherine winds up hooking up with Bill Dunbar, then you haven't been watching movies long enough. The stereotypes presented in the primary gang of girls are simply staggering as well. Julia Stiles plays Joan, the brain. Kirsten Dunst plays Betty, the bitch. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Giselle, the slut. And Ginnifer Goodwin plays Connie, the awkward shy one. It's this generic aspect of it that detracts a whole lot from the film.

There's not an ounce of subtlety to the way that MONA LISA SMILE is presented. The message is displayed in a pretty straightforward manner, and eventually they just pick it all up and shove it down your throat. Not that it's necessarily a bad thing, but it just didn't seem as compelling this way. C'mon, a little bit of challenge here is all I'm asking.

The performances range from the outstanding to the ridiculous. Ginnifer Goodwin is the real standout here as Connie, the shy, chubby girl who just wants to be happy. Her romance with the nerdy Charlie is the most compelling story arc here. Both actors involved are believeable and interesting. To balance the quality out, we have Julia Stiles as Joan, the smart girl who is conflicted between her dream of law school or her destiny as a housewife. Someone needs to alert Julia that not every role requires an English accent. And Stiles has the strangest-shaped head I've ever seen. I realize that it's irrelevant, but it's been bugging me for years.

Everything else is fairly pedestrian. Kirsten Dunst is passable as Betty, but she's been way better. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Giselle about as well as she can be expected to, but one of these days she's going to have to stop playing sex fiends lest she be typecast like her SECRETARY costar James Spader. Marcia Gay Harden does a great job with what she's given, but unfortunately her character is criminally underused. Dominic West needs to sit in on that English accent lesson with Stiles, but he's actually English so a little seepage into his character is a little more forgiveable. And then, of course, there's our star, Julia Roberts. Roberts practically sleepwalks her way through this movie, which I say not as someone with a bias (I thought she was amazing in ERIN BROCKOVICH) but as someone who was trying to give a shit about the film. Unfortunately, 10-1 odds says she'll be nominated for an Oscar for this performance, because the Academy awards roles rather than performances.

I just wonder how former first lady and probably the most prolific Wellesley alumnus Hillary Rodham Clinton feels about this movie and the way it paints her alma mater. For someone who prides herself on being the uber-independent woman, it sure doesn't look good to show your school, only a few years before you attended it, in this light.

Overall, I can't say that I disliked MONA LISA SMILE. If you're a guy, however, and you're not just going along to win the favor of your lady friend, you might be better off staying at home and watching DEAD POET'S SOCIETY. Sure, it's a chick-flick too, but at least there's an ounce of testosterone running through it.

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