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With: Alicia Witt, Harvey Fierstein, Brooke Langton, Johnny Galecki, Ivan Sergei, Marlo Thomas, Elliott Gould, Tammy Townsend, Molly Hagan, Estelle Harris, Pat Crawford Brown, Zachary Kranzler, Joe Mazza, Sulo Williams, Sandra Bernhard, Shannon Finn, Jacqueline Klein, Peter Quartaroli, Christopher Douglas, Alan Dale, James Carraway, Susan Chesler
Written by: Marni Freedman, Carlos de los Rios, based on a play by Marni Freedman
Directed by: Matthew Huffman
MPAA Rating: R for drug content, sex-related dialogue and brief language
Running Time: 97
Date: 05/01/2000

Playing Mona Lisa (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Smile Therapy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Mona Lisa is the gimmick that gives Playing Mona Lisa its title. It has nothing to do with the story of the film. It's just a catchy little gimmick that could have been lifted out of any romantic comedy. It's the moment when the film stops completely so that one character can explain to another what the title means. In this case, it's acting like Mona Lisa to get guys. You smile, but no one knows what you're really thinking.

That aside, though, Playing Mona Lisa is a delightful little film with an extraordinary performance by Alicia Witt (Urban Legend and Cecil B. DeMented) at its center. Witt plays a classical pianist (and does all her own playing) who is in love with one of her classmates (Zachary Kranzler). He viciously dumps her one night after a major audition and she spends the rest of the film trying to recover while going on other auditions. In the meantime, her father (Elliot Gould, in a wonderful dopey comic performance) is acting funny and has quit his job, her sister (Molly Hagan) is getting married, and her best friend (Brooke Langton) keeps dragging her to increasingly bizarre parties that look like they were designed by a Hollywood Oscar winner with an unlimited budget.

Witt's immersion into her character and the story is what make the film work. Rather than being a standard straight-man who looks around at the chaos and wonders, "why me?", Witt throws her whole being into the chaos. Even her hair seems to be effected by her crazy life. One crazy scene with her mother (Marlo Thomas), sister, and grandmother takes place over a two or three minute shot with Witt slumped forward on the breakfast table, her hair splayed out over her plate. In another scene, she learns over breakfast that her ex-boyfriend is getting married. Her calm exterior is broken only by her incessant scraping at her toast.

Another actress would have overplayed or underplayed these moments, but Witt hits them perfectly. During the party scenes, she both drinks and smokes pot for the first time, and her reactions are dead-on. Not to mention that the pacing and cutting of these scenes is pitch-perfect.

Playing Mona Lisa is set in San Francisco, and unlike many films shot here, uses The City well. Characters go all over the place, but they never jump suddenly from one point to another halfway across the city. The locations are used respectfully and lovingly, and -- though not always with a purpose -- at least they're nice to look at. A side effect of filming in San Francisco is the movie's use of lots of drugs (we're all drug addicts here, don'tcha know). One character wanders around the whole movie dropping acid and mushrooms into other people's food and drink. And, of course, you can't have a San Francisco movie without Harvey Fierstein, who is wonderful and touching as Witt's long-suffering music teacher.

Playing Mona Lisa was written by Marni Freedman (based on her own play) and Carlos de los Rios, and directed by Matthew Huffman, all first-timers to feature films. They make a few of the usual rookie mistakes, loading up the story with cliches (such as the title gimmick), but thanks to their wonderful cast, especially Alicia Witt, they keep it on track. This is a charmer.

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