- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

“Mona Lisa Smile” stars Julia Roberts as a proto-feminist art history professor at mid-‘50s Wellesley College, where she inherits a class of incipient Phyllis Schlaflys and sways them into becoming incipient Hillary Rodhams.

Well, good for her. If I wore a girdle, I’d burn it. If I saw Rosie the Riveter, I’d tell her to keep her job if she wants to, even after the boys come home. Only on the condition, however, that she be unladylike for a second and sock the person most responsible for this movie in the face.

Directed by Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral” and the next “Harry Potter” flick), “Mona Lisa Smile” tries harder than I thought it would to allow that modern feminism isn’t an unalloyed good, that there are costs to every choice a young woman makes: whether to postpone a family for a career, whether to marry young and have children in her prime mating years, or even whether to marry and have children at all.

Yet the screenplay, a tag-team jumble written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, crushes any chance “Mona Lisa Smile” had of being a satisfying and challenging movie. It manages to be badly oversimplified and overliteral and stuffed with too many competing ideas at the same time — a tricky feat, that.

“Smile” isn’t satisfied being a treatise on the emancipation of women from the home. It also tackles reproductive rights, the merits of modern art, academic freedom — have I left anything out?

Isn’t it possible for a feminist to think modern art is junk? Not in “Mona Lisa Smile,” it isn’t. The fates of both movements, though historically independent of each other, are spliced together here like an arranged marriage.

In the meantime, the movie angles for too many easy, wised-up smirks, leaving the impression that, sheesh, things were really backward then: The ‘50s were, like, darker than the Dark Ages. New England must’ve been one big puritanical harem for the WASP male elite.

Get a load of those haughty patrician accents. Look at the pipe-smoking adulterer who graduated from Hahhhhvud. Listen to that icy matron tell her cuckolded daughter that, dearest, this is the bargain we women must make. So buck up, little homemaker.

Despite all this, “Mona” might’ve been salvageable had its characters been remotely believable. They’re not. They’re as rigidly typed as a deck of cards.

Miss Roberts’ Katherine Watson, the loveliest, most agreeable bohemian from crazy California you’ll ever meet, confronts all the pigeonholes on her first day on the job at Wellesley.

At first, her charges are overconfident know-it-alls — awfully feisty ones for conformists — but the principal ingenues quickly hum their one-note songs.

Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) is the moralizing scold and campus editorialist; Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) is the discerning type, open to radical possibilities such as law school; Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin), the zaftig one, is of course the most immediately likable.

Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the wild card: free-spirited and sexualized; a Jew, too. I suppose that in Hollywood’s narrow mind, a young Jewish woman at Wellesley could be one of only two things: the unassimilated princess or the assimilated floozy.

Each of the ingenues has her man troubles, as does Professor Watson herself, who parries the advances of a schlub boyfriend (John Slattery, late of “K Street”) in California — engagement rings here are much like Tolkien’s famous ring: dangerous, possibly deadly — and a dark, handsome lothario (Dominic West) who teaches Italian on campus.

If that’s not enough, our bold heroine also must battle the Wellesley administrators, who belittle Watson’s liberal views on art and her “unorthodox” teaching methodology.

With all this swirling about, “Smile” adds up to a big fat zero. Superficially, it recreates the period well enough, with Perry Como and Doris Day crooning, jitterbugging parties and female heads plastered with buttoned-up bob ‘dos. It conjures no sense of nuance or degree, though, as tradition collides with change.

The conflicts of that era look too easy; the villains are silly caricatures, when in reality they were your grandparents and great-grandparents. I wonder what today’s young women will make of “Mona Lisa Smile” in this postfeminist age. Will they accept Katherine Watson as a pioneer of sorts, or will they wonder what all the strife was about?

Does “Mona Lisa Smile” even give them the chance to so reflect? Sadly, no. This movie force-feeds them what Hollywood wants us to believe about the ‘50s to reinforce the cultural biases of today’s elite.

*1/2

TITLE: “Mona Lisa Smile”

RATING: PG-13 (Sexual content; ethnic slur)

CREDITS: Directed by Mike Newell. Produced by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff and Deborah Schindler.

Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. Cinematography by Anastas N. Michos. Original music by Rachel Portman.

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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