Mona Lisa Smile
Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment
Date: March 9, 2004
Review posted: March 20, 2004
Gregory L. Amato
"Not all who wander are aimless. Especially
those who seek truth beyond tradition... beyond definition...
beyond the image." –Betty Warren
In 1953, Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts)
travels from California to the all-female Wellesley College in
Massachusetts to teach art history. Hough not in tune with the
school’s traditionalist attitudes, it is precisely for that reason
that Watson wants to go there and try to make a difference in the
lives of her girls. In teaching them about art, she hopes to teach
them about life, and open their eyes to possibilities otherwise
unheard of, despite the power of the institutional conformity
present at Wellesley.
I get the feeling that I’m not supposed to
laugh when Joan Brandwyn (Julia
Stiles) pulls a gavel out of a felt-lined box, knocks on the
chapel doors with it, and announces, “I am Everywoman!” But then
again, maybe it’s only in taking the scene seriously that I am
supposed to laugh at it.
Is Mona Lisa
Smile merely disdainful of the past rather than historical? The
film walks a fine line in recreating Wellesley College as it was in
1953-54. On the one hand, great lengths are gone to give us
everything from the television shows to the advertisements of the
time. Also, much of it is only there for us to widen our eyes and
think how many times we have changed since then.
of Time Magazine actually named Mona Lisa Smile the worst film
of the year. There really is a lot of aggravation about this film,
judging from message boards, reviews, and other websites. Both
positive and negative reviews seem to reflect little understanding at
all beyond what many people want to see rather than what actually is
seen. If you want the film to be liberal feminist subversive propaganda,
then look at how they sanctify Katherine Watson, who wants to destroy
our way of life! If you want it to be about the evils of housewifery
and triumph of the Spirit of Women, then look at how these characters
give up their dreams in order to be shackled to their men!
Mona Lisa Smile
doesn’t do either of these things, as anyone who actually watched it
would know. Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is not presented as a flawless person,
nor is she a condemnation of the traditional housewife, such points driven
home in one scene between Katherine and Joan. The film is not so much
about feminism as it is about the freedom of individuality. Wellesley
College in 1953-54 merely provided a means of telling such a story
because the environment there was dead-set against individuals who
might dare to defy tradition.
That said, Mona Lisa Smile isn’t a
particularly good film. It’s just nowhere near being the awful,
insulting swill that Time claims it to be. While it might work as a
feel-good film for some (maybe), it is true that most of the
characters lack depth. Katherine and Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst)
show some development, but the former character is minimal and the latter is
abrupt to say the least. The way the film parallels art with life is
unfortunately relegated to the background, leaving some interesting
potential in favor of the individual struggles each woman goes
through, with surprisingly little focus on the relationship problems
Katherine Watson experiences.
Mona Lisa Smile
in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Dark
tones and colors all look excellent with some grain in a few
scenes. Even when zoomed in, the DVD retains a surprising
level of clarity.
Mona Lisa Smile
in English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound and
French Dolby Surround 2.0. The score is subtle; it imparts what
sense it wants to convey (warmth, spaciousness, etc.) but you
might have a difficult time trying to recall how any of the music
went. Dialog is extremely clear—those lessons in elocution
characters took are fairly obvious from the beginning.
featurettes are included as bonus material, as well as
several trailers and "The Heart of Every Girl"
music video by Elton John. The "Art Forum" featurette
runs six and a half minutes and includes members of the cast
talking in very general language about the expression of art. "What
Women Wanted: 1953" is nearly 11 minutes and is a bit more
interesting, giving us a few bits of information about the
social climate of the 50s. "College Then and Now" is
probably the best of the bunch. At just short of 15 minutes,
lots of interesting college factoids are presented, like the
average age women married at in 1953 versus 50 years later. Even
so, none of the extras are particularly memorable, and there is
no audio commentary.
Vastly overrated or underrated depending on who you talk to,
Mona Lisa Smile is really more in between than anything else,
without enough good qualities to make it great and not enough flaws to
warrant a blatant dismissal.
VERDICT: RENT IT
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