“Mona Lisa Smile” could be subtitled “The Parade of Overrated Actresses.” It is filled with the hot, young actresses of today who really are living more on reputation than actual acting talent these days. I will give the film credit, though. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Guys are gonna hate it, there’s no doubt about that. It’s clearly Columbia’s “chick flick” answer to the opening of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”
The story follows progressive art history teacher Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), who is starting a new job at the most conservative school in the Northeast. She must battle against the wills of her students (including Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal ) whilst proving herself to the stuffy faculty.
But who can blame the casting of the overrated young actresses. After all, this is a movie starring Julia Roberts – the queen of overrated actresses. I don’t care if she won an Oscar. “Erin Brockovich” was not a stretch. Whenever she has tried to stretch (resulting in such disastrous performances as “Mary Reilly” and “Hook”), she’s dreadful. “Mona Lisa Smile” offers Roberts a chance to stretch within her stock character, which results in a film that pulls all of its punches.
“Mona Lisa Smile” tries to be a “Dead Poet’s Society” for girls, but its problem is that it doesn’t have the edge and dramatic thrust that was essential to “Dead Poet’s Society.” Several times in “Mona Lisa Smile,” it smelled as if the plot was heading down a duplicate path, and it specifically avoided the dramatic (and sometimes ugly) consequences so it wouldn’t be a direct copy.
There is a side-story romance thrown in for good measure between Katherine and the philandering Italian language teacher (Dominic West). Again, this relationship opens some doors to actual human drama but ends up playing itself out like a mediocre junior high school play.
Kirsten Dunst is one of the grandest acting disappointments of her generation. Her earlier (and I mean real early) work is excellent. She did a tremendous job in films like “Interview with the Vampire,” and even showed some good acting chops in “Jumanji.” However, after a string of two dimensional roles in everything from “Dick” to “Drop Dead Gorgeous” to “Bring it On” to “Spider-Man,” it appears that Dunst gave up acting when she rounded out of puberty. “Mona Lisa Smile” is no exception. She does nothing with the supposed villainous character of Betty Warren. Perhaps this isn’t all her fault since she’s not given much to work with and is left with no option but to just go through the motions.
But Julia Stiles tops the list of overrated young actresses. In “Mona Lisa Smile,” she lends her flat, wooden delivery to the cast. Her character of Joan is an enigma because it appears to be a leading role but really has no impact on the story whatsoever. She serves only as a challenge for Katherine to liberate. And when her story does come to a head, it is one of the most anticlimactic scenes in the film – and it could have been the dramatic crux of change for Katherine.
There are two cast members who actually give a solid performance. One is Maggie Gyllenhaal , who manages to be both sexy and vulnerable at the same time. Playing the harlot with a heart, Gyllenhaal allows us a chance to feel more sympathy for her (and her cheating ways) than we do for the other girls who are naively trying to do what’s right.
One of the better performances in the film comes from Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays the token fat girl who just can’t find Mr. Right. Too bad the character is cut from the same cardboard sheet as the others. If there was more depth, I feel Goodwin would have given an excellent performance. However, as it stands in the film, her character is a useless side-story that probably should have been edited out.
Ultimately, “Mona Lisa Smile” isn’t written for today’s audiences. In this liberated world we have today, preaching against the conservative 1950’s “Leave it to Beaver” attitudes seems pointless. Too many strawmen are used to illustrate the “Stepford Wives” behavior of the characters, which left me feeling uninspired.
I did find it ironic, however, that in one scene Katherine gives a lecture about how manufacturers have found a way to allow people to paint-by-numbers and recreate their own Van Goghs. This is exactly what the filmmakers did with this – paint by numbers with an overrated cast, tired storylines and archaic messages. It has all the elements of fine art, but in all reality, it’s a cheap copy.
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