Mona Lisa Smile
review by Gregory Avery, 19 December 2003

Yes, they did have diaphragms in the 1950s. They were still jitterbugging as late as 1954 (Bill Haley and the Comets doing "Rock Around the Clock" was still a year or so away). And, for a lot of women, the standard was to get married, raise children, and look after the home -- people could afford to do that.  I don't think a Wellesley College student would have been allowed to openly attack a faculty member in the school newspaper without receiving censure for being importune or just plain rude.

Which is probably why Ginnifer Goodwin's character is the most affecting part of Mona Lisa Smile. She plays Connie, a Wellesley student who, at a formal dance, meets Charlie Stewart (Ebon Moss-Bacharach), a guy whom she thinks her friends have set-up to be her date for the evening. When she finds out that this is not so -- that the reason he's being nice and wants to be around her is because he likes her for who she is -- you can see how this genuinely moves her. Connie is not unattractive, but she looks like the kind of girl who, if this type of opportunity with this type of guy comes along, it may only happen once, and she knows it. Goodwin steals the movie away from some considerable competition -- three of her character's classmates and friends are played by Julia Stiles (struggling, unsuccessfully,  not to sound overly mannered), Kirsten Dunst (projecting the tungsten-steel beauty of a young East Coast WASP), and Maggie Gyllenhaal (brilliant in last year's Secretary, and here taking on a great, Suzanne Pleshette-like swagger and grace), and they all take an Art History class from a new teacher played by Julia Roberts.

"All of her life, she wanted to teach at Wellesley College," says the narration when Roberts' Katharine Roberts arrives from California (the story is set on the cusp of the jet age, when the West Coast still truly seemed like a foreign country to the East), and in one of the opening scenes, she leads her class through a slide presentation during which they identify all of the artwork before she has a chance to talk about them, making her feel like a rube in the process. The film gets the look and feel of the circumspect Fifties New England life (I've BEEN in houses like some of the ones in this picture) right down to the chintz used to decorate the room Katharine rents from Nancy, who, as played by Marcia Gay Harden, has a quiet, ingenuous poise and looks like she may be something of a pistol in disguise when she identifies one of the female faculty members as having had a "companion" who just passed away, without sounding disapproving. But Harden's character turns into nothing more than a couch potato meant to be as bland and complacent as the TV quiz shows she watches at home. Katharine encourages Stiles' character to follow up her pre-law studies by applying to Yale, rather than vanish into a planned marriage, and introduces her class to modern abstract art, thus causing the faculty to reconsider whether she should stay at the school or not.

Is Katharine supposed to be a "progressive thinker," and, if so, where did she get her ideas from? If she had parents who got turned on to liberalism in the 1930s -- an obvious possibility -- it's never mentioned, and a lot of the movie feels like some of the glue that would hold things together was taken out. (For instance, abstract art in the Fifties was often equated with intellectualism, intellectualism with subversiveness, and subversiveness with Communism.) Katharine isn't even given a scene, let alone a chance, to argue in her own defense before her detractors, and taking her class to see one Jackson Pollock canvas would hardly qualify, now, as being some sort of danger. Katharine is also shown dumping her perfectly well-meaning West Coast boyfriend (John Slattery) in favor of the school's Italian teacher, played by Dominic West, who turns around and tells her, "You think you came to Wellesley to help the girls find their way. I think you came to help the girls find your way." This would suggest a kind of conformity that's no improvement over the commercial-ad style of life that Katharine, and the movie, express disapproval of, but this also comes from a guy who not only admits that he hasn't been honest about himself or his past, but who is openly known among the student body for sleeping with his students.

One of the reasons the movie goes all soft is because this is another role that Julia Roberts intelligently, thoughtfully, and conscientiously navigates her way through while very, very, very quietly displaying her screen charm. Heaven knows she's reached for subtlety in the past, sometimes with success, often at the expense of becoming amorphous. The title refers not to Roberts' grin, but to a woman who smiles without giving any particular reason for feeling happy. Without giving its main character the chance to stand by the courage of her convictions, the movie pretends to be about the joys of enlightenment and emancipation, but instead short circuits itself  and totally defeats its own purposes. Which is why Ginnifer Goodwin's storyline -- a girl who is accepted by a decent guy for her own worth -- is the most affecting thing in the movie. She's probably going to be the one who'll turn around and lead a radical movement for positive change in the 1960s. Katharine will be in Europe, sipping espresso.

Directed by:
Mike Newell

Starring:
Julia Roberts
Kirsten Dunst
Julia Stiles
Maggie Gyllenhaal
Dominic West
Marcia Gay Harden
Ginnifer Goodwin
Juliet Stevenson 
Marian Seldes

Written by:
Lawrence Konner 
Mark Rosenthal

Rated:
PG-13 Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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