Mona Lisa Grimace
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/26/03

  Yesterday Jess & I spent our Xmas going to see what I felt was gonna be an afternoon watching a clits & tits version of the wretched Dead Poets Society. We did. The film was the utterly banal, predictable, & clichéd Mona Lisa Smile. Like so many of the ‘good teacher’ films that preceded it we have the good- read, free-spirited liberal- teacher battling the forces of evil in the Dark Ages of the Eisenhoverian 1950s. Teacher is beloved by most of the students, hated by the management, eventually changes lives, but pays a price. That’s the blueprint by which this film follows.
  As for characters- this is set at Wellesley women’s university 50 years ago- the 1953-54 year- & Julia Roberts is Katherine Watson- a free-spirit from- guess, no- you know it- California, specifically Berkeley. Her students include Betty Warren- a snobby spiteful girl filled with hate, who marries a lech & cheater, divorces him, & moves to Greenwich village with a Jewish classmate. Of course, in the film she goes from KW’s greatest enemy to her biggest supporter & chronicler. Her character narrates the film. The Jewish girl, Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the school slut, bedding a lecherous Italian professor & later a 50-something married shrink. She loves KW from the outset, is her biggest supporter, &- of course- a heroine despite her self-absorption & self-destructiveness. Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) is the girl upon whom KW has great impact on, yet who has the ‘speech’ intended to show that this film is not all Hollywood left wing trash- she states that she can be intellectually fulfilled & a complete person as a 1950s housewife, even though history & the film’s design show she has not made the choice by herself, & has consigned herself to Purgatory- but she’s as independent as the stereotyped KW, who we find out is really intolerant & an aimless drifter, although the film specifically tells us this is not true, despite the evidence the film has laid out. An example of this is that she dumps her California artist beau (John Slattery)- a man at least 20 years her senior (cliché) because he has the audacity to want to marry her, then begins an affair with the lecherous Italian professor Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), only to dump him because- no, not that he’s still screwing the students but- he lied about his War record to friends. This is unforgivable, & a perfect excuse for KW to wanna leave Wellesley. Of course, she is pushed out willingly by a management/faculty that wants to bind KW’s teaching style- she likes Modern Art- Heaven Forfend! Of course, KW quits, even though we are told that her class for her 2nd year is the most requested in school history.
  There are side stories, & no- they are no better. There’s the fat girl Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwyn) who loves a nerd she thinks is using her. He isn’t & they, presumably, embark on a life of stultified boredom that KW really reviles. This just points out the utter inanity of this film. It has a left wing heart but a right wing soul. The film’s free-thinkers are as pallid & immature as the characters they revile. Also, it’s so easy & shallow to set a film back then & have a teacher embrace the Pollocks & Van Goghs to decry the myopia of the art world. It would really be challenging & brave for the film to have been set in the 2000s, with an art teacher who confronts her students to think openly about all the dreck that has been foisted as art the last 100 years- from Ab Ex to Confessionalism to Beat & Nuyoricanism to performance art- & actually rip at some works of living artists, & show some of the details behind critical thought. This teacher could then detail excesses from both left & right & the film could detail how little has changed from the 1950s, save the political compass’s pointer.
  Julia Roberts, unfortunately does not convey depth well- she cannot pull off the intellectual thing, much less the Bohemian. 1 is never convinced this woman would attend Beatnik poetry readings, or likes jazz. Joan’s attempt to show the ‘right’ side of life & KW’s inconsistency does not ring true. In fact, it is true, but in the film’s context it’s a statement the actual girl could never have made, at least given the character’s development to there, & her impending doomed marriage to Tommy Donegal (Topher Grace). Both he & KW wage a manipulative war for Joan’s affection & mind. Tommy wins, but KW’s manipulations are portrayed as sincere, even though we see what a hypocrite KW is- from her lies to herself over desiring approval of not just herself, but all her views, to her immature approach to sexual relationships. Other stereotypes include a lesbian nurse who is canned for giving out prophylactics- Amanda (Juliet Stevenson), & a pitiable home ec teacher Nancy Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden) who was dumped in World War 2 & has wasted her life pining for a man who never loved her.
  Ironically, KW spends her time teaching her students how to be ‘free’, while she herself is an utter cliché. At 1 point, after being condemned in the school paper by Betty, she shows a series of 1950s ads: women making meat loaf, cleaning house, & wearing girdles to set them ‘free’. She intones, ‘What does that mean?’ The answer, from a cynic, might be that in 50 years your descendants will be free to produce banal art like this.
  Surprisingly, most critics have seen through this film. In Rolling Stone Peter Travers sums the film up nicely: ‘"Irritating" doesn't begin to describe Julia Roberts as Katherine, an art-history prof who arrives at Wellesley in 1953. She's in her prime and eager to teach Stepford girls to be fem-bots....Women of the Fifties, rise up in protest.’ Unfortunately, some major critics have lapped this up as if they were insecure teenage girls. Roger Ebert, gave the film 3 stars. Let me quote & comment on some of his observations. He opens:


  I find it hard to believe that Wellesley College was as reactionary in the autumn of 1953 as "Mona Lisa Smile" says it is -- but then I wasn't there. Neither were the screenwriters, who reportedly based their screenplay on Hillary Clinton's experience at Wellesley in the early 1960s.


  Where has RE been? He actually lived through the 50s at an age when he could recall it.


  We are pretty sure what the story parabola of "Mona Lisa Smile" will be (the inspiring teacher will overcome adversity to enlighten and guide), but the movie is more observant and thoughtful than we expect. It doesn't just grind out the formula, but seems more like the record of an actual school year than about the needs of the plot. In the delicate dance of audience identification, we get to be both the teacher and her students -- to imagine ourselves as a free spirit in a closed system, and as a student whose life is forever changed by her.


  How can we identify if we know these clichés so well? &- if they are fictional it makes the movie all the more poor because there’s no reason NOT to write an intellectually engaging film rather than a Betty Crocker cookie cutter film


  But, you're wondering, how can I identify with a 30ish teacher and her 20ish female students? Don't you find yourself identifying with just about anybody on the screen, if the movie is really working? Katherine Watson is smart and brave and stands by her beliefs, and so of course she reminds us of ourselves.


  OK, Roger, but how is the movie working?


  Julia Roberts is above all an actress with a winning way; we like her, feel protective toward her, want her to prevail. In "Mona Lisa Smile," she is the conduit for the plot, which flows through her character.


  So, because JR is likeable the film works. Hmm….used to be when RE could, at least, rationalize more convincingly.


  Unlike the typical heroes of movies about inspiring teachers, however, she doesn't think the answer lies in exuberance, freedom and letting it all hang out, but in actually studying and doing the work, and she despairs when competent students throw away their futures (as she sees it) for marriage to men who have already started to cheat before their wedding days.


  Actually, that’s what KW says- in the film her character does try to let it all hang out, but she’s too much of a coward to do so. That’s the key reason we do NOT identify with her character- no 1 likes a coward, & doubly so a hypocrite!


  The movie, directed by Mike Newell, may be a little too aware of its sexual politics and might have been more absorbing if Katherine and her students were fighting their way together out of the chains of gender slavery. But the characters involve us, we sympathize with their dreams and despair of their matrimonial tunnel vision, and at the end we are relieved that we listened to Miss Watson and became the wonderful people who we are today.

  The film is all politics! What film was RE watching? Probably a JR lovefest, but this is not that film! Oy vey is mir! The only reason I can honestly say that this film is not as bad as, say, Saving Private Ryan or Titanic or From Hell is simple- the babes are cute as hell- Maggie Gyllenhaal is always sexy in a sly way, Kirsten Dunst does aptly portray the 1950s type whose bodice needs ripping & bosom needs suckling, & Julia Stiles has an eerie porcelain-like perfection, almost preternaturally perfected, that makes her mesmerizing to watch. &, hey, JR is not the best actress on the planet, but her goofy good looks are not punition. I would like to see stars like her wield & flex their power to improve rancid scripts like this. Hopefully the younger babes, if they become stars, will do just that- & ironically learn real lessons from this film that are not contained within. I can only guess JR actually likes clichéd wannabe tear-jerkers, or she lacks the ability to see 1 when she reads it. Either way, take a pass, & try reading anything for 2 hours.

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