Mona Lisa Smile is one of those movies that wants to teach the world but tries so hard to attain that lofty goal, that it's doomed to fail from the start. From the apparently inspiring story about an art history teacher trying to enlighten her students to the all-star cast, it seems as if the film's creators were more worried about appearances than the actual delivery of the story.
That's not to say the cast doesn't do an exceptional job. Julia Roberts plays a wonderful Katherine Watson, new teacher at Wellesley College, the conservative college for the brightest women in America. Roberts' charisma and spirit shine as the teacher who wants her students to have more than just a life as housewives. In a town where women are raised to take care of their husbands and their home, Watson's liberal attitude is unwelcome to everyone but her students. Her students, played expertly by Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhall, all react to Watson's thoughts and ideas differently, and naturally, they all learn from one another. But what they learn is unexpected. Or is it?
Where this film falls apart is the predictable story. It's too choreographed. It's too obvious what we as viewers are supposed to feel and think. Instead of a narrative that flows naturally with the currents of the characters' wishes and desires, this film feels as if it has a destination in mind from the outset. Rarely does the narrative take an unexpected turn. Instead, the scenes unravel in exactly the manner we expect them to. Until the end, that is, when each character seems to go through some major metamorphosis that is too quick and too inexplicable.
Perhaps one reason the narrative doesn't work is the use of quick, overly brief scenes. Too often a scene is over before it really has a change to delve into the heart of the character. A number of times while watching the film, I realized I wanted to see more. If only I had a few more moments with a particular character, I'd have a better understanding of who she is. I understand that juggling the lives and emotions of five different women, the film has to cut corners somewhere. With a running time two hours, I can also understand why the quick cuts were made. Unfortunately, I was unable to seriously relate to or completely understand any of the characters because the after effects of a large number of events were apparently snipped away during editing (unless, of course, they were written that way, which to me, seems worse).
Mona Lisa Smile isn't a bad film; it's just not the great film it seems to have wanted to be. It's a story that never gets off the ground because it always seems worried about the moral it's supposed to impart on the audience. That's a problem even a stellar cast can't fix.
Columbia TriStar presents Mona Lisa Smile in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 enhanced for widescreen televisions. Detail is impeccable here, as textures truly shine. But the beauty of this transfer is the color. Reds, greens, browns: They all look wonderful. Darker colors in shadows look equally nice. Although there were a few minor instances of grain, these were never intrusive. Halo effects were nonexistent.
For this type of movie, the 5.1 Dolby Digital presentation is rather nice. There are two keys to this film's audio presentation: dialog and the musical score. Both sound great. Voices are crisp and clear, while the music sounds spotless and becomes a perfect undertone for the film's theme. Although rears are used only for ambiance and occasionally to boost the sounds of the music, they do work effectively.
French 2.0 and optional English or French subtitles are also available.
THE BONUS FEATURES
This disc doesn't offer too much in the way of special features. Basically, you get three freaturettes with talking head interviews, snippets from the film, etc. Art Forum (6:30) showcases what the main actresses feel about art and artistic expression. Although there is some attempt to tie their comments in with the film, I think it might've been better if more questions were directed to particular scenes in the film, or perhaps questions about the characters as opposed to the actors. College: Then and Now (14:39) again features cast interviews, but this one is a bit more fun since it compares modern college life with that of the 50s. The last featurette, What Women Wanted: 1953 (10:42) showcases society of the 1950s.
Aside from these featurettes, you also get an Elton John video ("The Heart of Every Girl"), filmographies, and a plethora of trailers: Mona Lisa Smile, 13 Going on 30, Spider-Man 2, Big Fish, Something's Gotta Give, The Company, 50 First Dates, My Best Friend's Wedding, America's Sweethearts, and Stepmom.
This movie simply tries to hard. The characters and events seem to lead viewers to what is supposed to be a tear-felt revelation, but it never happened for me. I understood what I was supposed to feel, certainly, I just didn't feel it. With the mediocre special features, I can only recommend this one as a rental.