Welcome to Wellesley's cliched world

`Mona Lisa Smile' is yet another tale of inspiring teacher

December 19, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Can we just accept it as a given that good teachers are even more inspiring than they are informative? Do we need a movie about every man or woman who ever opened young people's eyes to possibilities outside their normal realm of experience?

Mona Lisa Smile stars Julia Roberts as just such an inspiring classroom presence, a free-spirited, West Coast art-history instructor who hits 1950s-era Wellesley College like a bomb blast about 20 years ahead of her time. She's beautiful and she's smart and she wants her girls to be all she thinks they can be, and woe to any man or institution that gets in her way.

As the movie would have it, she was about as welcome at Wellesley in 1953 as a case of the plague, and just about as subtle. Maybe Wellesley was as restrictive back then as the movie makes it seem; maybe the only thing it was interested in turning out was well-coifed, well-mannered wives for the country's leading businessmen. Maybe it was a high-priced cliche of postwar conformity. But would it have been too much to ask director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) to peek behind the facade and offer something in the way of insight? Would it have been too much to ask writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (the Planet of the Apes remake - now there's a pedigree!) to offer one character who isn't a cliche?

Apparently it would.

Roberts, foremost among a bevy of actors whose talent is squandered here, plays Katherine Watson, who has long dreamed of teaching at prestigious Wellesley. In a classic manifestation of "be careful what you ask for, you just might get it," Watson lands a position there, only to discover that the sort of prestige coveted by Wellesley doesn't exactly jibe with her definition.

Watson's unencumbered spirit is a dangerous commodity in the 1950s (or so says the movie's simplistic script). She believes women's minds need to be developed just as much as men's, she believes women should not sell themselves short by simply becoming housewives, and she believes very firmly in the rightness of her opinions.

So far, so good; decent movies have been made with far less plot, and certainly far less sense of moral righteousness. But here's where Mona Lisa Smile stumbles - its all moral righteousness. There's nothing wrong with a female teacher challenging her students to think outside the box, to pursue dreams outside the boundaries society has set for them. And in the world of this movie, Wellesley isn't so much a school as a cookie cutter, a ladies' finishing school where conformity is valued far above achievement, where who you marry is more important than what you know.

Of course, Watson runs into difficulty. There's the faculty, who look with arched eyebrows at her efforts to get her charges to think for themselves, or to expand their definition of art to include, say, Jackson Pollack. There's her prospective romantic partner (Dominic West, like just about every male in the film someone to be avoided). And there are her students themselves, a snotty little bunch who, at first, don't see any reason to follow Watson's lead.

Three of Hollywood's best young actresses, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal, play three of Watson's students. Neither Dunst, as a spiteful, snobbish '50s-era trophy wife who sees Watson as public enemy No. 1, nor Stiles, as the class president all too willing (so says her teacher) to subvert her intellect to society's mores, seems at ease in her role; you can see them acting. Only Gyllenhaal, as a flirty New Yorker willing to try anything, seems comfortable in her character's skin.

But that's the least of the movie's problems. Put simply, Mona Lisa Smile is too much of a stacked deck - a movie too concerned with ensuring that audiences feel a certain way to risk anything like nuance or interpretation.

And here's another issue - if Katherine Watson is such great shakes as a teacher and inspiration, why aren't any of her students pursuing a career in art history?

Mona Lisa Smile

Starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Directed by Mike Newell

Released by Columbia Pictures

Rated PG-13 (sexual content, thematic issues)

Time 115 minutes

SUN SCORE * *

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