Is there a clause in Julia Roberts's contract stipulating that, whatever film she is in, other characters must endlessly proffer comments about how amazing, wonderful, brilliant and beautiful she is? This has been a tendency in her work since The Pelican Brief (1993), and it shows no sign of abating soon.
In Mona Lisa Smile, this trend even leads to planting a moment in which her on-screen boyfriend compares her to – you guessed it – Mona Lisa, with the requisite accompanying monologue about the inscrutable mystery of her gorgeous smile. This is later followed by a scene in which a group of art appreciation students pore over the painting, unknowingly amplifying the boyfriend's compliment by referring also to Mona's inner strength, suffering, pride and sexiness. I expected Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" to make an appearance on the soundtrack at this point.
And perhaps it would have if the film had not been set in the 1950s – although this is not a movie strong on historical and cultural accuracy. Katherine (Roberts) teaches an art class at Wellesley College so progressive for its time that she has her previously airheaded girls chirping about "the context in which an artwork is seen and evaluated" and making allusions to Walter Benjamin's theoretical essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in no time flat.
But in case you get the impression that this is a highbrow work, such throwaway lines of erudition run second place to banter among the girls that their mysterious-beautiful-amazing teacher also had a "torrid affair" with William Holden in Hollywood – and when Katherine is faced with this charge, she simply smiles knowingly, like Mona Lisa ...
Mona Lisa Smile is a familiar tale of empowerment-through-pedagogy in the vein of Dead Poets Society (1989). Katherine is the modern, independent woman who arrives to liberate her students from their tunnel-vision destiny as wives, mothers and homemakers. Naturally, she comes up against conservative forces on the Wellesley staff as well as in her classroom – notably, the hard-as-nails, bossy Betty (Kirsten Dunst).
But this is a movie which refuses to take a definite viewpoint on its material. It strikes out in every direction, afraid to offend anyone. It plays equally to those who think the '50s were hell, as to those who now find it kitsch heaven. It supports Katherine's independence, but also finds room to affirm the viewpoint of Joan (Julia Stiles), who spiritedly defends the traditional female role in preference to a career as a lawyer. It shows Katherine as modern, but also neurotic. It hands the star a succession of fawning boyfriends, but also takes them away so that she can ride off into the sunset with her head held high.
The film has some nice moments, particularly involving the plucky Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) and her fight, against all peer-group odds, to get and keep a nice guy. Maggie Gylenhaal from Secretary (2002) has a less uplifting part as Giselle, the girl who sleeps around with male teachers and husbands, and regrets it afterwards. The neat resolution handed to her is as little believable as most of the other outcomes in the plot.
As directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1994), Mona Lisa Smile would have been a better and more enjoyable movie if it became – as it often promises to – a 50s-style soap opera, teeming with pregnant teenagers and small-town scandal. But everything here is streamlined into a comfortable blandness, and all one can remember five minutes after the end credits is the beaming dial of Roberts.
© Adrian Martin February 2004