Mona Lisa Smile review by Mike Long

I'm not a big fan of the Julias -- that would be Julia Roberts and Julia Stiles. These are two actresses which I find unbelievably annoying and I cannot fathom why they are popular. Knowing that both inhabited Mona Lisa Smile, I went into the film with a great deal of trepidation. The good news is that they really didn't get on my nerves in this movie. The bad news is that the movie still isn't very good.

Mona Lisa Smile is set in 1953 and opens with art history teach Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) arriving at Wellesley College from California. As she starts her first class, Katherine is surprised by how prepared the students are, but she is also shocked by how uptight they are. These students are nothing compared to Katherine's new housemate, Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), who teaches etiquette at the college. The movie also focuses on four of Katherine's students; Betty (Kirsten Dunst) is a judgmental high-society girl who only wants to marry; Joan (Julia Stiles) is a bit more forward thinking and dreams of going to Yale Law School; Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the pudgy girl with low self-esteem; and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a wild-woman who likes sleeping with her professors. As Katherine gets to know these girls, she is appalled to learn that none of them have any plans to use their educations in real life. Katherine attempts to show that girls that they can truly have it all, but her methods are called into question by the rigid Wellesley administration.

Mona Lisa Smile has been compared to Dead Poets Society, in the sense that it concerns a radical teacher who influences a group of students, but that's where the comparisons should end. The movie reminded me a lot of when I was learning to drive a 5-speed -- anytime the movie would get going, it would suddenly shift gears, sputter out, and have to start all over again. To put it simply, the movie is incredibly unfocused and it can't decide if it wants to be about Katherine or her students, and it tries way too hard to focus on everyone. I can't help but wonder if the original script did put the emphasis on the girls, but when Roberts was cast, they decided to play up the role of the teacher as well. The movie juggles way too much and director Mike Newell can't keep up with all of it. And when one of the many, many subplots does get interesting, the movie suddenly changes perspectives to another part of the story and any momentum is lost. And, several of those subplots (such as the one with Betty's husband) are wrapped up so quickly and neatly that the viewer feels as if they've missed something.

But, even if Mona Lisa Smile could have achieved any sort of forward progress, the movie's other flaws would have eventually killed it. As you can probably tell from the synopsis, the characters are very stereotyped and each one fits nicely into their pre-determined niche. The film's main mission is to explore the mindset of women in the 50s and examine how rigid the thinking was. Ostensibly, the movie's message is that women can be smart and independent. But, this theme gets lost along the way and the ending leaves us feeling as if having a man around isn't such a bad thing. The acting is fairly good, but what's the deal with Stiles' accent, which appears to be Elizabethan British? There is no real drama here. Will Katherine lose her job? Will the girls follow their dreams? The movie doesn't offer enough for us to care. Mona Lisa Smile offers some nice New England campus shots, but even for a "chick flick" the movie is tedious, overly preachy, and a total waste of time. (Speaking of wasting time, count how many times Newell shows the campus bell. We can hear it ringing, we know it's a bell!)

Mona Lisa Smile paints its way onto DVD courtesy of Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. This DVD carries one of the worst transfers that I've seen lately for a big-budget movie. Artifacting problems abound in this transfer. During many scenes, the characters' skin will appear runny and blurry. This brings about a look of video noise on the image. Many scenes are murky and dark, while others look fine. The colors very from natural to washed out. The only positive things that I can say is that there is basically no grain on the image. The DVD's audio presentation does fare somewhat better. The disc carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 track which offers clear dialogue and sound effects. However, the surround and stereo effects are sparse, with only musical cues and crowd noise reaching the rear speakers.

The DVD carries a few throw-away extras. There are three featurettes. The first, "Art Forum" (7 minutes) allows the main cast (minus Roberts) to give their opinions on art. I care? These comments are accompanied by clips from the film. With "College Then and Now" (15 minutes), the cast and crew comment on the realities in the film, focusing on the desires of the characters in the movie. "What Women Wanted: 1953" (11 minutes) is more like a documentary, as it mixed clips from the movie with footage from that era depicting the roles that women were expected to have. Elton John provides a music video for his song "The Heart of Every Girl". And finally, we have the trailer for Mona Lisa Smile (16 x 9) and filmographies for the main cast and crew.

3 out of 10 Jackasses

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