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No mystery here
There’s only Julia Roberts behind Mona Lisa Smile
Mona Lisa Smile
Directed by Mike Newell. Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. With Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Marcia Gay Harden, and Juliet Stevenson. A Columbia Pictures release (117 minutes). At the Boston Common, the Fenway, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

What is it about Massachusetts’s women’s colleges in the ’50s that’s made them a target of two of the most powerful women in Hollywood? Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia Plath graduates from then staid Smith and later teaches there in Sylvia, the grim bio-pic about the doomed poet. Her downfall was more Ted Hughes than the conformist ethos of the institution, but no doubt the traditional woman’s role espoused there had a hand in it. In the fictional Mona Lisa Smile, Julia Roberts’s formidable Professor Katherine Watson fares better at Wellesley College. But we’re used to Julia Roberts’s faring better, and her roles from Pretty Woman to Stepmom to Erin Brockovich describe an arc leading from plucky underdog to increasingly triumphant superwoman that eventually should end, one would think, with her canonization.

There is a certain pleasure in this fairy tale, even in the illusion that Roberts’s heroine has defeated the forces of injustice, intolerance, and hypocrisy when in fact she has only reconfigured and reconfirmed them. How can one not take Professor Watson to heart when in her first class she shows slides of the great works of art history only to have the snooty Wellesley girls in the auditorium call out the names and dates of the pieces before she can even catch her breath? (The little brats had memorized the textbook during the summer!) Or share her vindication when in the next class, having tossed the school’s stodgy syllabus aside, she catches the vixens off-guard with a Soutine canvas of a bloody carcass that initiates a discussion of what, in fact, is art?

Thank goodness this film is not art or we might be taking such stuff seriously. Instead, it’s a genial exercise in wish fulfillment and its inevitable punishment illustrated with spunky performances by some of the screen’s brightest female talents, Roberts included. From the uniform mass of hostility that greets Professor Watson that first day emerges a quartet of well-wrought stereotypes. Betty Warren (a brittle Kirsten Dunst), is the bitch, a backstabbing, snobby blue-blood whose ambitions are to marry a rich man and make all other women suffer for it. Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), is the goody-goody, whose ambition is to marry a rich man and suffer for it herself. Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the plain Jane who doesn’t think anyone will marry her. And Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the class slut, whose ambition is to sleep with everyone and eventually marry Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), the sleazily sexy Italian professor with whom she’s been having an affair.

Professor Watson will have none of this subservience to male domination. "I thought I was headed to a place that would turn out tomorrow’s leaders," she grumbles. "Not their wives." She’d even settle for a little bit of both, but as she opens the eyes of her charges by exposing them to a painting by Jackson Pollock and the possibility of law school, she incurs the hostility not only of the fossilized administration but of vicious Betty Warren. Betty’s a Hedda Hopper in the making, and her venomous screeds in the school newspaper threaten to bring down Watson as a "subversive" and doom this early stab at women’s liberation.

The school as a microcosm of social oppression has been a standard in movies from Zéro de conduite to School of Rock, and Mona Lisa Smile draws on the best and the worst of the genre. The first half of the film demonstrates artful direction by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as it evokes the paradox of great expectations and dull repression that was the Eisenhower era (though references to such topical matters as the Cold War and the Red Scare are largely left out). The repartee between the girls has a convincing wit and insouciance, and for a while the film has some of the period flavor and piquant irreverence of a distaff If . . . decked out in taffeta.

But then it descends into the bathos of Dead Poets Society and the kind of trashy melodrama that only a platitude uttered by a steely-jawed Julia Roberts can make right. So instead of wondering whether Joan is a sellout for wanting to get married or whether Professor Watson is in fact tampering with her students’ lives to compensate for her own life’s inadequacies, you’re wondering who might try to commit suicide. By now, the image of the Mona Lisa’s smile has been exploited so often that its mystery has faded. It’s been debased into a cliché, a fate the far less compelling mystery of Julia Roberts seems doomed to share.

Issue Date: December 19 - 25, 2003
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