Filling the required "chick flick" slot last holiday season, "Mona Lisa Smile" didn't quite make the impact that many seemed to think it would at the box office. After all, the film paired Julia Roberts - who's rarely had a miss - and the trio of Kirstin Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who are three of the most promising young actresses of their generation.
The reason for the somewhat lackluster showing wasn't due to the talent involved, I suppose, but likely due to the fact that audiences probably felt as if they've seen this before. They'd be right, too, as could easily be labeled a female version of "Dead Poet's Society", "Emperor's Club" and every other teacher-makes-a-difference drama out there.
Set at Wellesley College in a golden-hued 1953, "Mona Lisa Smile" stars Roberts as Katherine Watson, the school's new art history teacher who comes from California, is single and is in her 30's. While there'll be a legion of supporting characters, there's a few leads the film focuses on, and they're all types: Giselle (Gyllenhaal) is the flirty one, Joan (Stiles) is the brainy one and Betty (Dunst) is the bitchy one whose only ambition is to get a husband.
Katherine is upset to find that Betty's goal extends to the rest of the class, who are preparing themselves to be the wives of the leaders of tomorrow. They are only processing their schoolwork in order to spit it back out again, not formulating their own opinions or - as Katherine notes - "looking past the paint".
It's not terribly difficult to see where this is headed. Katherine will be "subversive" and try to reshape her student's outlook on the world beyond the campus, much to the dismay of the administration and maybe, one of the mothers of her students, who also happens to have quite a bit of power behind her. Of course, the film wouldn't be complete without a love interest (or two) for Katherine.
Gyllenhaal is easily the most enjoyable part of the film. The only one allowed to have a little fun, Gyllenhaal's naughty smile and terrific delivery of some very funny lines are refreshing in a film that, while about "breaking the mold", sticks pretty firmly to Hollywood formula (complete with happy ending where everyone's problems are wrapped up fairly neatly.)
Julia Roberts plays Julia Roberts pretty effortlessly and, while that's certainly rather enjoyable, it's nothing that we haven't seen her do before. It is nice, however, to see Roberts satisfied with not being the center of attention and sharing the screen-time with a more-than-capable supporting cast. Stiles plays a rather humorless character who we're never given much background detail on. It's probably her least interesting role, or maybe just the role she's taken with the least personality. Dunst is probably the weakest link; while I've greatly enjoyed the actress in other films, "bitter and evil" simply doesn't fit with Dunst and the performance is one-dimensional and unconvincing. Oscar nominee Marcia Gay Harden and Ginnifer Goodwyn (TV's "Ed") also give good, small supporting performances. The males in the cast aren't given much to do - even the usually funny Topher Grace ("That 70's Show") isn't allowed to do much.
Despite the considerable issues I had with the film, I found it somewhat enjoyable. It moves along rather swiftly; given the fact that it has oodles of subplots, it has the ability to bounce the focus someplace else every so often. While it doesn't always fill out supporting characters or subplots, the film manages to juggle all of its elements rather well. Director Mike Newell and cinematographer Anastas N. Michos shoot the film in a way that's golden-hued, ideal and not too static, yet doesn't call attention to itself or the nicely done period detail.
"Mona Lisa Smile" moves along enjoyably, delivers a few good performances and yet, it's familiar, not challenging or daring in any way and doesn't make the most out of the considerable talent involved. It's alright enough, but could have been much better.
VIDEO: "Mona Lisa Smile" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is taken down a tad by a bit of inconsistent grain, but remains otherwise rather pleasing. Detail is perfectly acceptable, if not exceptional - sharpness and detail seem lessened by the picture's seemingly intentional slight softness.
Pleasantly enough, only very minimal edge enhancement briefly appears. No specks, marks or other debris were visible on the print used. Finally, the film's naturalistic color palette appeared accurately rendered, with nice saturation and no smearing.
SOUND: "Mona Lisa Smile" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's soundtrack is, as one might expect, pretty conservative. Surrounds are used occasionally for some light reinforcement of the score and brief ambience. Score and dialogue seemed cleanly and clearly recorded, with no issues.
EXTRAS: No commentary is included. The three brief featurettes included make up the majority of the supplemental section. "Art Forum" (6:30) has the main actresses discussing their thoughts on art and some of the specific art and artists featured in the film. "College: Then and Now" (14:39) has the cast discussing their thoughts about the characters in the film as well as the similarities and differences between what college students went through back in the 50's versus today. Finally, "What Women Wanted: 1953" (10:42) is a mixture of a "making of" and a look at 50's society.
Also included is an Elton John music video, filmographies and trailers for "Mona Lisa Smile", "13 Going on 30", "Spider-Man 2", "Big Fish", "Something's Gotta Give", "The Company", "50 First Dates", "My Best Friend's Wedding", "America's Sweethearts" and "Stepmom".
Final Thoughts: "Mona Lisa Smile" is nice enough, offers a few good performances and is certainly watchable, but it never seems satisfied to be more than the standard, by-the-numbers fare that its screenplay is. Columbia/Tristar offers a DVD edition of the film with a few supplements and satisfying audio/video quality. A fine rental.
The Film ** 1/2