"In a world that told them how to think, she showed them how to live."
If ever there were a smile in Hollyweird deserving of its own movie title, it would be that of Julia Roberts. Wait... isn't this movie about feminism and being more than a pretty face? Who'd you say was in it? Julia Roberts? Kirsten Dunst? Maggie Gyllenhaal? Julia Stiles? Right. It's only going to get worse from here.
Premise: It is 1953. Katherine Watson (Roberts) is a free-spirited art history professor from California who accepts a one-year teaching contract at Wellesley College. Eager to gain the recognition and reputation that accompany the Wellesley name, she is soon shocked to discover that the college is nothing more than a hangar for housewives-to-be. Through art and her undeniable flair, Jul--I mean Katherine is determined to teach them the feminist thought and girl power that they'll need to challenge the roles society tells them they're "born to play."
Don't get me wrong. It was a cute film and it did highlight some of the issues facing academic women in the 1950s, albeit shallowly. Juli--damnit, Katherine even manages to shack up with a hunky fellow professor who has a few skeletons in his closet. Nevermind her whirlwind romance--she has her hands full educating the young female minds of Wellesley. Unfortunately, while most of the girls seem to have promising futures, they prioritize domestic engineering over law school, academic betterment, or trite discussions about the same artwork people have been having trite discussions about for centuries. Ahem. Sorry. At one point the protagonist bemoans, "I thought that I was headed to a place that would turn out tomorrow's leaders, not their wives!"
Through the entire sitting I wondered what the Mona Lisa had to do with this movie, except for the immediate reference to art history. The girls in class focus more on Van Gogh's post-mortem success and the role of advertising in the socialization of women. Before you get excited, Dead Poets Society this ain't. The DaVinci reference turns out to be just as bland and predictable as the plot of the movie. Betty Warren, a student inspired to throw off the chains of the patriarchy and become her own liberal, free-thinking woman, shocks her mother to near-stroke status by pointing at a picture of the Mona Lisa. She scathingly offers, "She's smiling. Is she happy? She looks happy. So, what does it matter?" Ooooh, score one for the non-conformists.
Seriously. For all the ribbing, I should say that this movie isn't so bad. It has nice scenery--and I'm not talking about the actresses. The cinematography is rather enjoyable. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, and Ginnifer Goodwin all turned out lovely performances that easily upstaged the bigger talent. If you can suspend the inner critic, Mona Lisa Smile is a fun rental. Still, the most complex irony of the film is its name. Here we have a title based on a work of art that's noted for its mystery and subtle wisdom, and yet we've attached that title to a film that's as transparent as as a brown paper bag filled with grease.
Quick facts courtesy of IMDb:
Mona Lisa Smile, 2003
PG-13 for sexual content; 117 minutes
Directed by Mike Newell
Written by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal