What would Julia Roberts be like if she lived in the 1950's? Well, for one thing, her name would be Katherine Watson and she'd be an art history professor. But by and large, she'd be the exact same Julia with the charming smile, and everyone she meets will eventually fall in love with her.
Yes, it's true, Mona Lisa Smile is a rubber stamp role for Julia Roberts, but I'm going to stick my neck out here and actually recommend this picture. It's not a perfect film, it's formulaic, and it's a film that lesser critics would call a "chick flick." What makes me recommend Mona Lisa Smile is the characters. The film presents a group of strong, intelligent, multi-dimensional female characters and that is something I can get behind in a big way.
It's all-too-easy to accuse Mona Lisa Smile of being a female version of Dead Poet's Society and there isn't a reasonable argument to the contrary. However, I don't see why there shouldn't be a female version of Dead Poets. How many more movies do we need about a cop on the edge or an adolescent boy who can't get laid? What we need is more films where a woman can sit in the theater, point at the screen and say, "I know her." I don't relate to Lara Croft, Elle Woods, the women from The Hours or any Nicole Kidman role of the last ten years. I don't even relate to Julia Roberts' Katherine Watson. But I was friends with all the girls like Maggie Gyllenhaal's Giselle Levy and I was raised by a woman who had a lot in common with Julia Stiles' Joan Brandwyn. I would rather eat my own hair than watch 90% of the films Julia Roberts has made, and that goes double for Runaway Bride; but I admire Roberts for using her star power to bring a movie like Mona Lisa to the screen.
Katherine Watson is an art history professor from California who accepts a position at blue-blooded, old money, Wellesley College. The year is 1953, and to liberal Professor Watson, Wellesley appears to be "a finishing school disguised as a college." The girls might practice debate in one class and proper table setting in the next. Looks, however, are deceiving. The girls are viciously competitive and hostile to Watson, whom they feel is an inexperienced, loathsome spinster. On the first day of classes, the girls plow through every item in Watson's four-month syllabus, smiling smugly throughout. Watson retaliates by presenting the class with works by Picasso and Pollock who, in the 1950's were not acknowledged to be masters. Having been taught what to think all of their lives, many of the girls are repulsed by Watson's challenging questions such as, "Tell me, is this art? and "Who determines what is art?" Though some consider her to be subversive, others embrace her as a breath of fresh air.
Four students in particular are central to the plot. One imagines this group is meant to represent the various types of women found on the Wellesley campus at the time. The foursome are roommates and, of course, as different as night and day. Betty, played by a thin-lipped Kirsten Dunst is at the top of the heap from a social standpoint. She is as arrogant as any man and looks down her nose at everyone except her best friend Joan Brandwyn. Joan, played by Julia Stiles, is Betty's equivalent in the academic world. She is at the top of her academic class, president of the debate team, and dating a boy from Harvard. Constance is the stocky but perky tag-along, and Giselle, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal is the quirky and loveable outcast. Giselle is perceived by Betty to be lacking in morals, but to the audience she is the most modern.
The filmmakers do an excellent job of establishing the very different world in which these women lived. Marriage was everything and being a spinster was the worst fate imaginable. In one scene, the girls fiercely compete to win an annual race in which the winner will be the first to marry (similar to a bouquet toss at a wedding). The losers of the race then throw the winner in the pond out of spite. Later in the film, Betty proudly displays her new washer/ dryer combo set to her best friend Joan and then berates her for applying to law school; accusing Joan of "throwing away her dream." As a young woman, it floors me that this kind of duality existed not so long ago, and it makes me admire the advances women have made.
The director of Mona Lisa Smile, Mike Newell, also directed Four Weddings and a Funeral. It is clear Newell has a knack for managing ensemble casts and I am really looking forward to seeing what he will do with the fourth Harry Potter film, slated to be his next picture. Though Newell wasn't able to turn Julia Roberts into a great actress, at least he was able to diversify the singular non-smiley expression she can muster by shooting it from multiple angles.
Mona Lisa Smile is, without question, a paint-by-numbers kind of film; but the image this picture creates is one of unusual beauty. The characters are strong, intelligent, well-developed and (gasp!) female. Any film which brings to the big screen a positive portrayal of women gets a recommendation in my book.
-Megan A. Denny