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Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews

Mona Lisa Smile

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Judy Thorburn

Mona Lisa Smile

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Flick Chicks Chick-O-Meter The Flick Chicks, film, video, movie reviews, critics, Judy Thorburn, Victoria Alexander, Polly Peluso, Shannon Onstot, Jacqueline Monahan, Tasha ChemplavilFlick Chicks Chick-O-Meter The Flick Chicks, film, video, movie reviews, critics, Judy Thorburn, Victoria Alexander, Polly Peluso, Shannon Onstot, Jacqueline Monahan, Tasha ChemplavilFlick Chicks Chick-O-Meter The Flick Chicks, film, video, movie reviews, critics, Judy Thorburn, Victoria Alexander, Polly Peluso, Shannon Onstot, Jacqueline Monahan, Tasha ChemplavilFlick Chicks Chick-O-Meter The Flick Chicks, film, video, movie reviews, critics, Judy Thorburn, Victoria Alexander, Polly Peluso, Shannon Onstot, Jacqueline Monahan, Tasha ChemplavilFlick Chicks Chick-O-Meter The Flick Chicks, film, video, movie reviews, critics, Judy Thorburn, Victoria Alexander, Polly Peluso, Shannon Onstot, Jacqueline Monahan, Tasha Chemplavil

“MONA LISA SMILE” – JULIA’S BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Let me make one point clear.  Mona Lisa Smile has nothing to do with the famous facial feature of Julia Roberts, the film’s star. Although, no doubt there are many of you out there who thought that title referred to the pretty woman. That’s an obvious expectation. I’ll admit I at first thought that, too. But, I will get to the actual title reference, and the meaning it has in this movie later.

What Mona Lisa Smile IS, is a look back into the 1950’s, and the role that women were expected to play in society before the feminist movement of the 60’s awakened us to self empowerment. Surprisingly, the script is co written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (Jewel of the Nile) and directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) – three persons of the opposite sex who make an attempt to deliver a female version of the Dead Poet’s Society or The Emperor’s Club. You know the basic idea, where a special teacher shows up as the inspirational force that changes the lives of her students.

Set in 1953, Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, a character described as a bohemian art history teacher, fresh out of grad school, who is anxious to make a difference at the prestigious all women’s Wellesley College in Massachusetts, a school with a reputation for being the most conservative in the nation.  Wellesley is more like a preparatory academy to learn some smarts and bide some time before someone proposes, rather than preparation for career-minded young women. For Katherine, it becomes a struggle to teach her students to become independent free thinkers, ideas very much against the school’s old-fashioned standards, and which are viewed as unorthodox and subversive.  At the start, Katherine is up against a class of know it alls, who seem way ahead of the learning curve. Smart and assured of the curriculum, they nevertheless see college as just an educational step on the way to their more important goal in life, getting married and raising a family. But, as their new teacher sees it, this is a school for “leaders, not their wives” and would like to open her student’s eyes to that fact.

The story involves four supporting roles that represent the typical stereotypes. Interestingly cast against type is Kirsten Dunst as the very nasty, stuck up Betty Warren, whose only goal in life is to get married, and sees Ms. Watson as a threat to everything she was raised to believe.  There is smart, well mannered, upper crust accented Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), torn between going to law school and marriage, and not willing to accept that she can do both. Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the “fast” girl, a sexually promiscuous free spirit indulging in affairs with older or married men, including the handsome professor who shows some interest in the new teacher. And, then we’ve got the sweet and sensitive, overweight Connie Baker (excellent newcomer, Ginnifer Goodwin, recently seen on TV’s Ed) who thinks that love will pass her by. They are all very good filling their respective roles.

Of course, there are some faculty members that add to the mix. Marcia Gay Harden is Katherine’s roommate, Nancy Abbey, the speech, poise and elocution teacher, a definitive example for her students, who has been living a lie about a long lost love; school nurse, Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson) fired for dispensing contraceptives to students, and that dashing Italian language professor, Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), who Katherine hooks up with briefly after breaking off with her old boyfriend, Paul (John Slattery).

Mona Lisa Smile is a well-paced period drama that aptly evokes the fashions and morays of the post World War II era. But, it is for most of the performances, that I would recommend this film. The four young supporting actresses transcend a script that needs a little more punch.  All the characters find themselves, as expected, along with the predictable confrontations and sentimental ending. And, as much as I am a fan of Julia Roberts, I felt she was miscast in a part that called for a more edgy, anti-establishment, earthy look, not a star with every hair in place and perfect makeup.  No way did I sense she was a Berkeley bred bohemian transplant.

Now, back to the title. Where does Mona Lisa Smile come into play? Leonardo’s masterpiece depicted a woman whose smile on the outside made her a valuable piece of art to put on display. But, like all the women in the movie, there is no way to tell what she felt inside.  The Mona Lisa Smile stands as a metaphor, and as an example of not everything looking like it seems, especially in the female repressed society of the 50’s.

As I left the preview screening, a male colleague mentioned with a smile, that this is definitely a chick flick, and not really for him.  He had me wondering - is that really what he felt?