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Mona Lisa Smile By: Eli Lehrer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 07, 2004

At a glance, Mike Newell's new film Mona Lisa Smile, released three weeks ago, seems a slight entertainment. While it offers a few outstanding performances and terrific production design, Mona Lisa Smile never comes close to greatness. 

Many critics have called the movie a female version of Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society, and, indeed, both movies share a plot outline: an unconventional teacher shows up at a staid educational institution, asks students to reassess their lives, gets in trouble as a result, but changes students nonetheless.

In Mona Lisa Smile, the teacher in question is Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts): a free-spirited art historian from California who comes to shake up Wellesley college. She gets involved in her students' personal lives and makes waves with her enthusiasm for modern art. The students all fit broad stereotypes: viewers meet prim know-it-all Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), conflicted intellectual Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), and slutty (at least for her time) Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhall). Watson, meanwhile, keeps in touch with a far-away boyfriend, refuses to get engaged with him, and beds attractive Italian professor Bill Dunbar (Dominc West) before breaking up with him. 

In the end, traditionalist trustees and a conservative president force Watson out of the college. But Betty leaves the loveless marriage that appeared to trap her, Joan seriously considers law school as an alternative to marriage, and Giselle finds a good role model. The movie deals in caricature and occasionally verges on the unbelievable: even a conservative college of the 1950s wouldn't have found non-representational art, already about 40 years old, intrinsically shocking and, even in the 1950s, a fair number of female college graduates had careers of their own. 

What makes the movie more interesting than the womens' empowerment dreck that the Lifetime network churns out is the ambiguity of its central message. Newell and script writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (Mighty Joe Young, Star Trek VI) clearly support the film's theme that women shouldn't live for marriage alone. And the script isn't subtle about this. If anything, it proves a bit too clear cut: even ardent traditionalists wouldn't have a serious problem with Joan leaving a childless marriage with a philanderer, and Giselle's "promiscuity," while frowned on in her time, seems like natural behavior for someone who probably won't get married until age 30.

If the script only dealt in these sort of crude sterotypes, only the quality of the costumes and performances (particularly Gyllenhall's and Dunst's) would have saved it from sinking to TV movie quality. Instead, Konner, Rosenthal and Newell do something a little more bold: they recognize the value of tradition. Joan, who Watson encourages to apply to law school, gets into Yale and then decides not to go so that she can marry a boyfriend she truly loves and raise a family for him. "It's my choice," she tells the professor in a particularly emphatic speech. Maybe she's made the wrong choice but making a traditional choice, the film argues, doesn't make one a weakling. When Watson and Dunbar break up, likewise, Roberts' character confronts the dashing Italian professor about greatly exaggerated war stories he's often told in class. Dunbar responds with a tirade accusing the free spirit of trying to reshape her students just as much as the etiquette teachers do. It appears, interestingly, that he wins the argument. Tradition, even the most restrictive tradition, has real value: society (and women themselves) derived some benefits from the mommy-stays-at-home-while-daddy works model. Watson's free spirit after all, ends up breaking up a marriage (albeit a rather worthless one) and costing her a job. 

The movie could be a lot better: At its core, Mona Lisa Smile pretends to break down social barriers while actually preaching a moderate feminism that all but the most ardent social conservatives accept as common sense. But the movie's sense of political balance makes it much more interesting: the writers and director don't like every aspect of the socially constrained world of 1950s women's colleges (nor should they) but they do recognize that leaving behind its mores had a price.

Eli Lehrer is a writer in Arlington, VA.

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