Silver Chips Online

Mona Lisa Smile falls short

Movie conjures up trite emotion

December 24, 2003
The combination of three acclaimed movie stars is bound to interest audiences eager to watch a profound, feel-good movie. However, Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile falls short of reaching great depths despite its dramatic elements.

The movie begins when Kathrine Watson (Julia Roberts), a Bohemian from California, begins teaching art history at Wellesley College, “the most conservative college in the U.S.A." The year is 1953, and the goals of the college girls extend to getting married, having children, and tending the house. However, Watson is on a mission to change the outlook of these girls indirectly through her lessons.

Upon reaching Wellesley College, Watson is told to “watch out" for herself, and the audiences soon see why. Not only are the college girls precocious and snobby, but they take pride in humiliating their novice teacher. Watson’s first lesson turns out to be a dismal failure as she realizes that the girls have already memorized the course syllabus. Students Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) and Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) have no problem interrupting Watson by citing showy details of various artists.

Watson is determined to turn the game around and, on the next day, challenges the girls to think for themselves by starting a debate on the characteristics of good art. She asks that her students “consider" art when she takes them to a grungy part of town to stare at a recently unveiled abstract work that is made of splatter-paint. While this scene is meant to be life-altering for the girls, it comes across as banal. Audience members have difficulty believing that this display of art has had a deep impact on the students.

Watson’s unorthodox teachings start to capture the attention of the principal as well as Bill Dunbar, a Spanish teacher who becomes enraptured with Watson. The art history class becomes a catalyst for a greater turmoil in the college. Betty, the most conservative of all the girls, sets out to expose the school nurse for prescribing birth control pills and later writes an article accusing Watson of subversive teaching. Watson responds with an entirely impractical scene of screaming and yelling her frustration at the college. Caught between her own ideals and the struggle of staying within Wellesley’s conservative ideology, Watson decides to press on with her campaign to bring more meaning to the lives of her students.

Director Mike Newall continues to pack dramatic elements into the film. The movie tries to tie in too many sub-plots, including a love affair between teacher Bill Dunbar and student Giselle Levy (played by Ginnifer Goodwin), a surprise engagement between Watson and a man from her past named Paul, and the faltering love-life of Betty and her new husband. Mona Lisa Smile does not impart a deep sense of connection between the teacher and the students but just comes across as a copy off of the award-winning Dead Poet’s Society. The roles of the students are underdeveloped, leaving Watson’s close friendship with Joan unexpected and unrealistic.

Despite such concocted relationships, the movie in general is heartwarming, especially with the romance between Connie and Paul. Connie, a short and somewhat chubby girl, hesitantly falls in love with Paul. As the story unfolds, Connie learns to accept her appearance and gain self-esteem. Another plus for the movie is the extravagance radiating from Roberts. Her demeanor is calm, intriguing and adds elegance to the movie. Dunst and Stiles also deliver remarkable performances, especially Dunst who acts as a cold-spirited young girl torn between the social conservative ideals of the time and her true desires for life. The scenery and photography of the film are also outstanding; they manage to capture the New England green hills and blustery winters throughout the movie.

The acting, scenery, and emotional bits are enough for Mona Lisa Smile, but don’t expect as great of a show as in Dead Poet’s Society. While the acting of Roberts, Stiles, and Dunst carry the movie, they can’t stir up emotion that just simply isn’t there.