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Thursday, December 18, 2003

Grin and bear it

Movie: Mona Lisa Smile

Posted on Thu, Dec 18, 2003 at 4:00 AM

***
Mona Lisa Smile
Studio: Columbia
Website: http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/monalisasmile/index.html
Release Date: 2003-12-19
Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten DunstJulia Stiles, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dominic West
Director: Mike Newell
Screenwriter: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
Music Score: Rachel Portman
WorkNameSort: Mona Lisa Smile
Our Rating: 3.00

The title refers to a mask of inscrutability, not to star Julia Roberts' infamously more toothsome visage. To pierce the veil of the feminine mystique, director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) takes us to Wellesley College in 1953, where newly arrived art history professor Katherine Watson (Roberts) is trying to modernize the tastes of her class of housewives-in-training (including Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal). But it's not just Picasso that Katherine wants her girls to embrace; it's an entire era of new possibilities, one in which they're free to put off matrimony in favor of continuing education -- or, failing that, to at least swap spit with whomever they want to, sister. Nods to contraception and anti-Semitism also feature in this overreaching movie, which at its most brazen plays like an extended trailer for the 1960s. (When Katherine uses advertising images to deconstruct America's idea of the perfect woman, she almost steals Warhol's whole act in the process.) Much of this sermonizing-by-slide-show would go down easier if not for the (mis)casting of Roberts, who simply lacks the authority the role requires. Still, the movie is a sight better than the "Dead Poets Society" in Drag you may have expected, finding a decent amount of genuine pathos in its student-body case studies and refusing to posit an easy answer for every character's social-integration problem. At a crucial moment, the film pulls back from baby-boomer self-congratulation long enough to allow that, for some of the ladies in question, motherhood might be an honorable option, too. And if the implied anti-feminism of that message pisses you off, just remember: One of them might have been your Mom, man.

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