"Mona Lisa Smile" - Movie Review
- Friday, December 19, 2003
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and thematic issues)
Release Date: December 19, 2003
Actors: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Mike Newell
Plot: Katherine Watson (Roberts) is a young, free-thinking professor from UCLA, who gets a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953. As she begins to teach what she knows, she is quickly astounded at how advanced in their learning these young women already are, yet surprised by the mindset of her students. It seems these bright, young women of Wellesley are ultimately taught to aspire to marriage rather than a career or degree (what a shock!). Katherine openly begins to encourage them to think beyond the white-picket fence and babies, and set their course on continuing college and a career. Her protégés (Stiles, Gyllenhaal) are eager to learn, but newlywed Betty (Dunst) feels Katherine is threatening the traditions of Wellesley, looking down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty’s use of her column in the school paper as a sounding board for her opinions ultimately creates problems for Katherine and others, revealing secrets that bring conflict for everyone — including Betty.
Good: Visually this movie is compelling because of the nostalgia of the '50s and the A-list cast led by Roberts who do the best with what they are given. Dunst plays a mean-spirited girl who single-handedly destroys several lives and is driven by the demons of a controlling mother and repressive lifestyle — and she does it really well. Her character (supposedly) represents the generation of girls who were shaped by the '50s culture to marry and be a “perfect homemaker.” I enjoyed seeing the emphasis on etiquette and moral standards from that time period and of course, the clothes, furniture (Harden’s character utters the line, “Don’t you just love chintz?”) and other reminders that create a nostalgic ambiance. And for all of the “anti-free thinking” and “repression” this story portrays that time period to be about, I was impressed at how culturally accountable to moral standards and behavior that generation really was — something our culture could use a big dose of today.
Bad: Lots of drinking, smoking, dialogue about sex, nudity in artwork, and an implied sexual situation (but nothing is shown) and there are some obscenities and one religious profanity in this movie. For all of the visual things Director Mike Newell does right with this movie, his heavy-handed drama misses so much in other areas. By the end of the story the audience is almost beaten over the head with a supposed 50s mentality (a school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control to a promiscuous student, a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist," all girls think about is getting married, Betty is ecstatic that she has a new washer and dryer, Betty accuses a girl of being a whore because good girls don’t do what she does) that’s designed to create a sort of prison from which Roberts needs to free her students. It makes the institution of marriage and motherhood the ‘bad guys’ and sets up Roberts' ideals and free-thinking approach to a career and life outside the home as "the hero" of the story. But it fails to win its argument in many ways as Katherine never connects emotionally with any of her students. She makes a feeble attempt to attend a party, drop profound "truths" on them in class and create field trips to view art that will expand their minds. But the girls have so many ingrained problems that the story focuses on (one girl is sexually promiscuous and has an affair with a married man, another is pressured to marry even though she wants to go to college, another is controlled by her mother and marries for social status, etc.) and they are so self-absorbed, that it’s hard to believe that Roberts' character makes a defining impact. In the end when everything comes out about Dunst's character and a couple of the other girls, and the audience realizes why each girl acted and reacted the way she did, there’s little sympathy left to care or even want to emotionally connect with any of them. It’s that lack of connection that leaves a feeling of indifference rather than inspiration and again, it all points back to Roberts' character. We see Katherine break off a long-distance relationship with an older man, date (and sleep with) one of the teachers and then reject him because he lied about his past to impress her. The only real impactful conversation that could have made a huge difference in the story was when he confronts Katherine about the wall she’s built around her heart and life, and her unwillingness to let a man in to complement her philosophy. Katherine quickly brushes him off, and the subject is never dealt with again which is why the story doesn’t work. Katherine doesn’t seem to be able to handle or come to terms with her own desires to have a marriage and a family along with her career. She doesn’t end up practicing what she preaches, nor does she have an epiphany about herself that brings resolve to her own life and bottled up fears and emotions. Instead, she walks away from the challenge and almost seems to abandon the very situation that was beginning to change because of her presence. The story would have the audience believe that the '50s was an “oppressive decade” for women because it isolates and makes fun of a few ads that focus on women in the home. The story never shows the other side of society as it really was — the strong religious influence of a godly nation, the workforce of women born of men who had been off to war, or the prosperity that virtually exploded in this country and created the perfect environment for marriage and raising families, which incidentally created the baby boomer generation. So, what was so wrong with that? In a nutshell, this story is about the early stages of feminism. I think you could safely argue that for all of the good feminism has accomplished in many areas of women’s lives today, it has equally and irreparably damaged many others.
Bottom Line: I wanted to enjoy this movie like I did “Dead Poets Society,” but instead it left me with a sort of sad and depressed feeling. Aside from the biased and ridiculously one-sided commentary the movie makes about the '50s, the audience is left with shallow, incomplete characters and unresolved issues. I give this movie a "C" for a “chick flick” that is entertaining but unfulfilling.
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