Jan. 12, 2004 – "Mona Lisa Smile" takes quite a bashing from most reviewers, for all the reasons it seems likely to wind up being a barrel of fun. Serious reviewers probably shouldn't review silly movies. Oh well, just a thought.
The smile in this case belongs to — who else? — Julia Roberts as Katherine Ann Willis, a progressive UC Berkeley graduate come to Wellesley College to enlighten her art classes, and not just about art, although she does introduce them to Jackson Pollock and company.
It is 1953, and American women — at least those at Wellesley — are just beginning to try their wings outside of the kitchen and bedroom. Willis strongly advises against the ills and doldrums of marriage, an attitude that gets her a lot of grief from other faculty, and, initially, from many of her students.
Willis has her hands full with Julia Stiles as Joan, the overachiever; Maggie Gyllenhaal as Giselle, the sexpot; Kirsten Dunst as Betty, the marriage-bound shrew; and a new face, Ginnifer Goodwin, as Connie, the Rubenesque.
Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe (a serious reviewer) takes a very dim view of the whole project, calling it "the weirdest commercial film of the year." And, for just those reasons, it really sounds appealing. For instance, Morris takes a critical look at what the girls do "sitting around their dorm discussing their burgeoning sex lives with surreal candor, as Giselle slides and wraps herself around her classmates."
This, he says, is after the school nurse (a lesbian) is dismissed for supplying contraception, and Marcia Gay Harden, the "nutty speech, elocution and poise" instructor, gives a nightmare dinner party tutorial. They didn't use to have those in school, did they? And what are they?
Morris does relent, however, on Roberts: "If her character's crusade to save her students from marriage is certainly her most baffling yet, it's also her most entertaining."
The movie "is one of those movies where heart and head clash and neither wins," according to Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune. But he can be had, as well. Listen to this: "It does offer a loving, amusingly detailed re-creation of the styles and music of the Eisenhower era, as well as a stellar ensemble of actresses playing the mostly WASP upper-class."
What most of the reviewers object to is that it is most certainly not "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," the 1968 Maggie Smith film where Brodie gets in hot water for opening girls' minds to sex in 1930s Edinburgh. Given that it doesn't try to be, this seems an unfair comparison.
Betty, the marriage-bound, does indeed do the deed, only to have one of her classmates sing something called "Murder, He Says" at her wedding reception.
And, at last, we lose Willis as the film draws to a conclusion we cannot reveal. Morris, not to be outdone, offers his idea of where she is headed: "It's a safe bet that she's parachuting into Kabul or Baghdad right now."
"Mona Lisa Smile" is directed by Mike Newell, runs 2:05 and is rated PG-13 for sexual content and thematic issues.
It starts on Thursday at Market Square East on St. Thomas.
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