Movie Reviews

Mona Lisa Smile: Only Smiling About Half the Plot

Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal
Directed by Mike Newell

Being adopted, I often get into discussions on adoption in various locations on the Internet. Invariably, there are always those that can’t understand that things were different back in the 50s and 60s when many of our mothers surrendered their child. Instead, they argue from a point of view based on what opportunities and choices are open and available to women today.

For them, I suggest a quick viewing of Mona Lisa Smile.

The setting is Wellesley College in the Fall of 1953. Julia Roberts is Katherine Watson, who has taught Art History at a community college on the west coast and anxiously anticipates teaching the best and brightest women in the nation now. On her first day teaching, she finds the difference between where she’s taught before and these girls. They have completely read the text and supplements. Her entire class already knows what she intends to teach that day.

For me, rather than viewing this film as the story of Julia Roberts’ character, I saw it more as the story of the young women at the school, particularly Kirsten Dunst’s character, Betty Warren. Betty comes off initially as a self-important student whose mother happens to be the head of the alumni committee. Betty is scheduled to marry Spencer Jones (Jordan Bridges), whose family is quite revered in social circles.

Kirsten Dunst plays Betty perfectly. Initially, she comes off as a snob, and then downright mean to her fellow students. I wondered for a while why they even put up with being her “friend” when she is so cruel to all of them. Slowly the truth began to seep out, and it was often in the stoic expressions on Dunst’s face while her friends were all happy and giddy. The truth becomes all too apparent when she deliberately sabotages Connie’s (Ginnifer Goodwin) relationship with her own cousin. Betty is trapped in a marriage that is essentially arranged and isn’t the least bit fulfilling for her. She’s not happy unless she’s tearing other people down to feel as miserable as she does.

I followed Betty’s story with much more interest than Katherine’s. The “unorthodox teacher” has been done many times before, and quite frankly, better. Julia Roberts brings nothing special to the part, and I could see quite a few other actresses in the role, and possibly doing a much better job as well.

To be fair, it’s all not Roberts’ fault. The script is fraught with holes as to the motivation of the individual characters, and the audience is left to fill in many of the blanks themselves as well as make assumptions. What makes Katherine look down on marriage and choosing to stay home with a husband as much as she does? Her disdain for women who choose to stay home despite their intelligence becomes evident when Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), whom Katherine helped get accepted to Yale Law School, opts to forgo a Law Degree to stay by her fiancee (later husband’s side). Yet we are never told why this bothers Katherine so much.

It’s also hard to root for Katherine’s romance with the school’s Italian professor, Bill Dunbar (Dominic West). He sleeps with his students and lies to Katherine – a fact that when exposed didn’t really surprise me. I should feel upset that this relationship falls apart? I felt like slapping her around for getting mixed up with him in the first place.

Katherine’s whole storyline could have been jettisoned from the film, and it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. In fact, I think the film might have been better for it, focusing instead on the young woman at what was then the most prestigious college in the nation, just before the sexual revolution. These women are all quite smart and have had every opportunity life could offer them. Yet, their lives are destined to be no more than props or accessories to the man they marry. There is no real choice for them – most of them have some social standing, and to choose anything other than being a trophy wife is to throw all of that away and be cast out of their social and familial circles. The character of Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) gets quite a bit of airtime, but also suffers from the lack of a background, although parts of it are hinted at. She is perhaps the most progressive thinking among all of the women, and the emotional baggage that propels her in this direction is hinted at, although not completely explored.

The best scene in the movie comes between Giselle and Betty and didn’t take the direction that I thought it would. While out with her married lover, Giselle observes Betty’s husband hugging and kissing another woman. When Betty confronts her about her promiscuous behavior in the next scene, I expected Giselle to drop this bomb on Betty in an effort to hurt her as much as Betty’s words, whether written or spoken, have hurt those around her. Instead, Giselle hugs her friend. It was a powerful moment that really demonstrated the bond between these women, even when it appeared they couldn’t stand each other.

The look of the film is quite nice. The image is a bit rough around the edges and subdued at times, giving it the feeling of actually being back in the fifties. That’s not to say the colors aren’t brilliant at times. There are stunning visuals around the actual Wellesley campus, especially as scenes are shot to show time passing and the change of seasons. This is the time when the great detail and differentiation of the various colors can be seen, which showed that what I’d first noticed was primarily for effect. On my widescreen television, the DVD looked brilliant.

The sound could have been a bit better. I found I had to up the volume a bit from where I normally keep it to hear the dialogue. However, once I’d done that I had no problems with having to lower the volume when scenes changed or music dominated the particular scene. The soundtrack sounded fine, accompanying many of the scenes so that quite often I’d forget it was there.

DVD Extras

There were three featurettes on the DVD release of Mona Lisa Smile:

Art Forum – Has actresses Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Marcia Gay Hardin discussing art and their feelings about it in general intercut with scenes from the film.

College Then and Now – Members of the cast and crew discuss the differences in what was expected from female college students back in the 1950s. This focuses primarily on the differences in what the future was for female college students back then versus what the future looks like now.

What Women Wanted: 1953 – Probably the best of all the featurettes, this really talks about the movie’s setting as well as how the cast and crew felt about working on it. It was a time just before women really exploded into carving out their own destinies, and it explores a lot of the history of the times as well as what filming the movie felt like.

Music video: Elton John’s The Heart of Every Girl

Filmographies: Mike Newell, Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Hardin

Theatrical Trailer

Previews: 13 Going on 30, Spider-Man 2, Big Fish, Something’s Gotta Give

This isn’t a horrible film, and as a historical look at women’s roles in the mid-1950s, it’s not bad. However, I just felt that the writing could have been a little sharper, and rather than bringing in a big-name star to portray the teacher and having a somewhat schizophrenic plot between her and the young women she’s teaching, it would have been better to just focus on the college women themselves.

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