Grin and Bear It
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
While Scarlett Johansson is gearing up to embody the Girl with the Pearl Earring next week, Julia Roberts draws comparison to another famous painting in Mona Lisa Smile.
Both paintings -- and incidentally, Johansson -- inspire a certain wonder. What can these beautiful women be thinking about? We can never know, but while we're wondering Roberts makes us feel warm and mushy inside.
Roberts is such a huge movie star because she's found the one thing she's excellent at and continues to do it well. And there's nothing wrong with that. John Wayne did the same thing, as did dozens of other stars. We're drawn to Roberts when she portrays smart, beautiful, single women who make men ache in the pits of their hearts. But she's the opposite of an ice goddess or a sexual bombshell. Her joyous laugh can melt just about anyone.
And so it goes in her latest film, Mona Lisa Smile, from director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral). But no one told Roberts that she was in the wrong movie.
Roberts plays Katherine Watson, a free-spirited art teacher who clashes with the meticulously prepared students at Wellesley College, circa 1953. While she teaches an unorthodox off-book curriculum, the students struggle with the life that's expected of them -- marriage, kids, etc. -- or that elusive life as an independent, modern woman.
Joan (Julia Stiles) flirts with law school before making her decision and Betty (Kirsten Dunst) finds that marriage doesn't quite work for her, while Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) expresses her freedom by sleeping around, including a tryst with the handsome Italian teacher (Dominic West) who has eyes for Katherine.
So what we have here is another Dead Poets Society or To Sir With Love where the teacher eschews the "three R's" to teach kids about opening their hearts and taking a chance. But just as she begins to make inroads with some of the girls, her methods cause her to lose her clout with the school.
The many storylines unfold pretty much as you'd expect them to, but slowly and clumsily over the film's longish 114 minutes.
Unlike Johansson in Girl With the Pearl Earring, our Mona Lisa doesn't really fit into a time period of only 50 years ago. She plays it as if she were ripped from the frames of one her present-day romantic comedies and suddenly plunked down into a time of sexual injustice.
While a hugely intelligent performer, Stiles tries a little too hard to act upright and proper. Dunst fares a little better, chewing into her bitchy Betty character, but she loses the deep soulful thoughtfulness that usually accompanies her performances. Only Gyllenhaal consistently fleshes out her hippie-ish nymphomaniac with surprising moments. Her totally unguarded character is the only one to hint at the mysteries of a great painting.
More to the point though, Newell never lets on what he wants Mona Lisa Smile to be. He's not exactly damning our treatment of women 50 years ago, but he doesn't praise it either, leaving us wondering why he chose to tell this particular story. He slips in scenes of Betty and Joan trying to re-create a little piece of domestic heaven with their husbands/fiancees, but forcing it a bit, perhaps not sure of the exact motions.
On the other hand, Newell uses a couple of adult women to illustrate the damage that independence can do. Marcia Gay Harden and Juliet Stevenson appear in lovely, beautifully-acted supporting roles as single women and teachers at the college.
Harden has given up on life, getting drunk and remembering her one great love, or staying home and watching TV. Though the movie never mentions the word, Stevenson's character is (gasp) a lesbian whose lover has died. These two lonely souls may never find anything else. It's too late for them.
Roberts's little romantic interludes away from the girls are nice, but they just don't fit in with the rest of this grim subject matter. Her smile is still dazzling, but there's not much here to actually smile about.