Lowdown: A free thinking woman teacher bumps into full blown conservatism at a reputable female only college.
Dead Poets Society was a good film that took place in a male boarding school. Hollywood’s bean counters thought hard on how to create a proper sequel, and the solution they came up with – Mona Lisa Smile (2003) – is it: the same story wrapped up around a conservative female only American college.
Set in fifties’ Massachusetts at what is described to us as an ultra conservative but also highly reputable girls’ college (so reputable I have no idea whether the institution is real or fictitious, but then again I’m pretty ignorant about most things), we follow a Julia Roberts portraying a relatively unqualified new arts teacher arriving from California. With the terms and conditions for the room offered by the college being rather too restrictive to our liberal teacher, Roberts has to find a place to live. Quickly enough she realizes she needs to make a special effort with the girls she’s teaching, because they all learned the course material before her lectures started and they all seem smarter than Einstein and Hawking combined. We then meet the girls (portrayed by the likes of Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal), each of whom perfectly fills the niche of a particular stereotype the film would like to capitalize on: the ugly, the conservative, the promiscuous, etc. All in all, Roberts learns the girls aspire to quickly get married and live the rest of their lives as adoring housewives, which implies all of their sophisticated education is going to be wasted. Roberts will not allow for that; this time, it’s personal.
Mona Lisa Smile works on two main agendas. First we have liberal vs. conservative and then we have the issue of women’s rights and the way our patriarchal society treats women. A lot of it relies on us looking at things from our contemporary perspective, as if mocking fifties’ treatment of women and its entire conservative package. Yet are we entitled to take such a perspective, the way the film urges us to do? I would tend to disagree and point towards the ongoing discrimination against women that is still considered very acceptable. Couple that to the glamour associated with Julia Roberts as an actress and you will understand why Mona Lisa Smile fails to hit the targets it set itself. I mean, it’s nice and entertaining and all, but between its cliché treatment of the problem and the shallow way it does so it becomes hard to consider Mona Lisa Smile as a thought provoking film. Yet another near hit/miss from director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)...
Talking about the miscasting of Roberts, I have to say I wasn’t particularly impressed with her acting either. Essentially, she’s doing another Erin Brockovich act here, to the letter; as usual, it is left to Gyllenhaal to save the day, performance wise, but her role is too small to have a meaningful impact.
Time to discuss the film’s art lessons…
Roberts takes her flock to see a Jackson Pollock picture. She stares at it with awe as the girls are struggling to come to grips with it and determine whether it’s good or bad art. Us viewers are meant to know that Pollock=quality, but you’ll have to excuse me: staring at something and saying “wow!” does not guarantee quality; I often do the same when I look at my output in the toilet.
It’s a very American movie trait, this automatic allocation of awe we should have whenever a famous name is mentioned but without explaining to us why the subject deserves the awe in the first place. To me, this sounds like a sophisticated way of arguing from authority, which is something you do when you don’t have any proper arguments.
Now, the question is whether a film like Mona Lisa Smile needs to provide us with a quick lesson in art appreciation in the first place. In my opinion it does, for the simple reason it already tries to provide us with such lessons. Problem is, according to this movie an art appreciation lesson mostly involves placing a picture in front of you and gazing at it with wide open eyes.
Overall: Mona Lisa Smile touches on some big issues that deserve our attention. On the other hand, the treatment it gives these issues does not do justice to them. I’ll stick with giving Roberts & Co 3 out of 5 stars.