Mona Lisa Smile
2 out of 5 stars
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You start to worry when a usually reliable director like Newell (Four Weddings, Donnie Brasco) unleashes a film so awash in sickeningly sweet sentimentality. This is a girly Dead Poets Society, covering the 1953-54 school year at Boston's posh Wellesley women's college. Katherine Watson (Roberts) is the new arts teacher from (shock!) California, struggling to prove herself to both the overachieving students and the supercilious staff. The story centres on four students: the arrogant troublemaker (Dunst), the strong-willed brain (Stiles), the naughty rebel (Gyllenhaal) and the needy good girl (Goodwin). Katherine finds some friends in the faculty--landlady Nancy (Harden), who teaches elocution and poise; the scandalous school nurse (Stevenson); a sexy Italian teacher (West). But she also makes enemies through her unconventional teaching style, which challenges the girls to think for themselves.

This film is so heartwarming that it makes Patch Adams look gritty and raw. To the strains of Rachel Portman's swirly score, shafts of pollen-dappled sunshine bisect each pastel-painted scene. There's not a harsh colour in sight; the film is full of picture postcard images of autumn, winter and spring in New England, where everyone walks around in impeccably colour-matched outfits, made-up and hair-sprayed to within an inch of their lives. It's so nauseatingly perfect that you long for a serial killer to rampage through the campus! Even the sad/tough moments are beautiful ... and full of Important Life Lessons. But despite the Dead Poets similarities (including not one but three "Captain My Captain" moments), the script is full of interesting situations and characters, all very well played. Harden once again shines above the ensemble as the fiercely askew Nancy, investing the character with telling detail and moving moments that actually make her the heart of the film, despite strong work from the actors around her. Dunst is excellent in the most thankless role, while Roberts is as watchable as ever, although she's asked to flash that 20-million-dollar smile far too often. There are also excellent themes and issues in here, but the soft preciousness effectively drowns them out in the end. If you like chintz, you'll love this. Otherwise, consider yourself warned. And I'll start worrying now about the fact that Newell's directing Harry Potter 4.

cert 12 themes, vulgarity 7.Nov.03

dir Mike Newell
scr Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
with Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Marcia Gay Harden, Juliet Stevenson, Topher Grace, John Slattery, Marian Seldes, Donna Mitchell, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Jordan Bridges, Laura Allen, Tori Amos
release US 19.Dec.03; UK 12.Mar.04
03/US 2h05

Wellesley girls: Roberts, Daisy Baldwin and Stiles.

dunst gyllenhaal harden
west stevenson grace
R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... Rob Carter, Athens, Georgia: 1 out of 5 stars "Perhaps the one good thing about this movie is the splendid joke of casting Julia Roberts in a film with the title Mona Lisa Smile. Whether she uses it to grin or pout, Roberts' wall-to-wall mouth has got to be one of the least subtle and mysterious in all of Hollywood. Jack Nicholson's might run a close second. Beyond that, there's really very little to recommend this film. The word 'lackluster' isn't quite strong enough. There are plenty of movies out there with nothing to say, but this one has achieved a rare, almost perfect hollowness. What is so profoundly annoying about this film is that it pretends to be about non-conformism, a 'dare to be yourself' movie, but it dares absolutely nothing. We get regrettably tired dialog, and occasional splashes of feminist ideas which, as feminism, might have been daring for the 19th century but not for 1953, and in 2003 they wouldn't even get you in the door of a Judy Chicago retrospective. At one point in the film, Watson singles out for criticism a paint-by-numbers kit for van Gogh's Sunflowers, lamenting how our society has replaced the passion of art with a regimented, follow-the-rules mentality. This film has more in common with that kit than it would like to admit." (3.Dec.03) Mona Lisa Smile

Dave, Brian, Kelly and Jeniffer, Montreal: 5 out of 5 stars "This movie is one of the best of Julia Roberts movies. It's Julia's most poignant performance since Erin Brockovich. Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal were all very good! Go to see it and enjoy it!" (3.Dec.03)

Laurie T, Minneapolis: 3 out of 5 stars "My husband was out of town, and I told a girlfriend that this was probably a chick flick - so would she like to go with me? Okay, no offense meant, but a film about a women's college taught by a rebellious instructor, back in the '50s when a woman's goal in life was supposedly to advance her husband's career, sublimating her own? We laughed during this film a lot - we both remembered the white gloves worn when dressing up and the whole 'you need a man' mindset. I felt this movie really was true to the whole '50s mentality, and we both enjoyed a walk down memory lane. Also, Julie Roberts was awesome - and Kirsten was the perfect bitch." (7.Jan.04)

Mona Lisa Smile David Haviland, London: 3 out of 5 stars "This is beautifully shot, and the dazzling cast are always watchable; in particular the wonderful Gyllenhaal, whose warmth and tenderness stand out against the glacial Dunst and Stiles. The film is superficially similar to Dead Poet’s Society, but where that film was passionate about poetry, Mona Lisa Smile simply uses art as a metaphor for the girls’ awakening. Despite its historical setting, it’s a film that deals with a very contemporary issue: Can a woman really have it all? Surprisingly perhaps, it reminded me of nothing so much as Sex and the City. However the film falls slightly flat, in part because it focuses on Katherine (Roberts), who has the least interesting storyline. Katherine is supposed to represent some kind of parallel to the girls, a woman who is successful in her career but whose romantic life is in doubt. Roberts is a fine and versatile actress, but she wouldn’t be my first choice to play a woman left on the shelf." (29.Jan.04)

© 2003 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall