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Mona Lisa Smile  (2003)


Starring: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles

Director: Mike Newell

Rating: PG-13

Distributor: Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment

Release Date: March 9, 2004
Review posted: March 20, 2004

Spoilers: None


Reviewed by 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.


Richard Corliss 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.




Columbia presents 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.




Columbia presents 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 the characters took are fairly obvious from the beginning.




Three 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.




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