Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New on Blu: "Mona Lisa Smile"

There are some movies you can feel good about enjoying, and then there are movies like Mona Lisa Smile. There's nothing in the picture that you haven't seen before, probably in a better film; it is cliché-ridden, melodramatic, obvious, and simplistic. I wish I could leave it at that. But it's just too damned likable.

The "teacher who inspired us all" is a literary and cinematic convention as old as the hills; members of my movie-going generation tend to compare all entries in the genre to Dead Poets Society, itself a fairly obvious riff on Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The recipe is simple--unique, rebellious, free-thinking educator breezes into academic setting (preferably an uptight, exclusive private school, hopefully run by hidebound authoritarian figures), slowly but surely connects with a select group of interesting student types, shaking up their march to their predestined fates by changing the way they think, live and feel--usually to the chagrin of the rigid school establishment. Cue the strings, run the credits, go home with a tears drying in your eyes.

Mona Lisa Smile doesn't shake up the formula (the irony of a film about non-conformity taking so few risks is not lost on this viewer), but is saved (mostly) by its witty, literate screenplay, the intelligent, low-key direction by Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and the outstanding performances. Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal's script is notable not for its storytelling chutzpah or ingenious construction, but for its dialogue and characterizations--these women may be clichés, but they're well-written, well-played clichés.

Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, the new Art History professor at the distinguished Wellesley College for women. The year is 1953, and Watson floats in from California, all free-spirited and forward-thinking and progressive and whatnot, and is shocked to find that the main focus of this distinguished women's college is to produce housewives. Her students are knowledgeable to the point of intimidation (a terrific early scene, where she finds out exactly how prepared these women are, is so well-written and well-executed that it is sort of exhilarating), so she works some modern art in the curriculum, and starts asking them to examine the way they think about art.

These classroom scenes are the best stuff in the film. Some real questions are asked, some interesting points are made, the drama is (mostly) believable, and Roberts is at the top of her game--another scene, late in the film, in which the art slides are replaced with magazine ads of the housewife at work ("SLIDE!" she commands, and the next one slams in), represents some of her finest work.

Perhaps the most interesting actor in the picture is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the campus bad girl as if she's fully aware that she is stealing every single scene. Gyllenhaal, who was coming off of her star-making turn in Secretary, is simultaneously heartbreaking, sexy, and wickedly funny. Julia Stiles, a marvelous actress in her own right, has trouble overcoming the stilted nature of her character, but she's still interesting to watch.

Kirsten Dunst doesn't fare as well in the film's most thankless role. She's the token bitch, and she doesn't get many opportunities to color outside of thosee lines, since her character mostly functions at the convenience of the plot. She's a snooty, bitter little thing, turning into a shrieking shrew in one badly handled confrontation with Gyllenhaal, and unable to do one damn thing with the awkward, clunky scene that explains the title. She's a decent actress, but not here. However, Marcia Gay Harden, Topher Grace, Ginnifer Goodwin, and John Slattery make valuable contributions in smaller roles.

Thankfully, the film doesn't get as buttery about dear Katherine as you might think; a brief romance with a fellow professor (played by Dominic West of The Wire) ends with some keen, tough observations about her. Those character flaws are forgotten by the end, however, which lays it on mighty thick. But we’re in a forgiving mood by then; Newell’s sure-handed direction can’t entirely compensate for the inherent familiarity of the material, but he makes it a pleasantly enjoyable diversion.

There is much to admire about Mona Lisa Smile-- it is beautifully executed (talented cinematographer Anastas N. Michos creates some awfully pretty pictures) and is a showcase for some truly fine acting. That it breaks little new ground and makes barely an impression, though an accurate statement, is a pretty hefty charge to lob at an entertainment as lightweight as this one.

"Mona Lisa Smile" made its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, February 2nd. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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