Mona Lisa Smile (review)

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Dead Painters Society

Have you heard? The 1950s were tyrannically conformist. Women were horribly oppressed. All that underwear — girdles and bullet bras and such — was like a prison. And everyone’s minds were even more shackled than their floppy bits. It’s downright startling, isn’t it? I mean, who knew?

But — and here’s the real surprise — all that cultural hegemony and drilled-in obedience could be overcome under the ministrations of one perfectly perfect, sweetly bohemian teacher who could open their eyes and blow their minds. I feel like all those oppressed 1950s women must have felt getting their horizons expanded, making this discovery. Who knew the world could be so big, so wonderful, so full of stuff that The Man doesn’t want me to know about, like Jackson Pollack and sex and Paris? Who knew?

Clearly, no proper young lady of the 1950s would have been allowed to indulge in this level of sarcasm.

It’s like Dead Poets Society — or, really, more like its pale shadow, The Emperor’s Club — meets Far from Heaven (if Nancy Meyers had made it), this Mona Lisa Smile, this female equivalent of The Last Samurai. Really, just go back and read my review of Samurai and substitute “Julia Roberts” for “Tom Cruise” and “New England women’s college in 1953” for “postimperial 19th-century Japan” and it’s all pretty much the same stuff I have to say: big movie star you can’t forget is a movie star; thoroughly unsurprising turns of events; nothing at all to addle your brain or expand your horizons, lest you become at all uncomfortable with what the film has to say.

Julia Roberts (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Full Frontal) and her hair and her teeth arrive at Wellesley College in 1953 to teach art history. Her Katherine Watson is a free spirit, unmarried, a slob at home — I think she even wears pants in one scene. She has certainly been sleeping with her boyfriend (John Slattery: The Station Agent, Bad Company) back home in California. What would Joe McCarthy think? Katherine is completely unprepared for the array of clichés she encounters in New England, like Wellesley president Jocelyn Carr (Marian Seldes: Hollywood Ending, Town and Country), at whom you just have to laugh the moment she appears onscreen, the way she’s all pinched and mean — she’s the Wicked Witch of Wellesley.

And then there are the students: bitchy, uptight society spawn Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst: Levity, Spider-Man); cool, reserved society spawn Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles: The Bourne Identity, O); Jewish slut Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal: 40 Days and 40 Nights, Secretary); and the adorable “ugly” girl, Constance Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin), whom no man, the general consensus appears to be, could ever, ever love. Katherine has far more than four students, of course, but these gals span the available female clichés of the period well enough to suffice for plot purposes. Which involves the general opening of their eyes and blowing of their minds and expanding of their horizons. Did you know that a woman has choices beyond getting married and having babies? Even in the 1950s? And that having sex isn’t such a bad thing for a gal to do, even in the 1950s? I’m so glad the movies are here to tell me these things.

The almost all-female cast is truly one of the finest assembled in recent years, and also includes Marcia Gay Harden (Mystic River, King of Texas) as the cliché of the woman who’s gone a little nuts without the love of a good man, and Juliet Stevenson (Nicholas Nickleby, Bend It Like Beckham) as the (lesbian *sigh*) nurse who gets fired for distributing contraception to sluts like Giselle. Stevenson, a goddess, is in the same position Tony Goldwyn is in The Last Samurai — she’s the one about whom you say, “Gosh, wouldn’t it have been cool if she was playing Katherine?”

I gotta admit, though — and you know how hard this is for an inveterate Julia-hater like me — that Roberts almost manages to make you forget she’s the world’s biggest movie star. Almost the entire movie has gone without any of the Julia clichés appearing, and your hopes rise: Perhaps she’s trying to disappear into a role. And then it happens: a blast of that megawatt smile and a toss of that glorious mane, and the illusion is broken. And all you’re doing is sitting in a theater watching Julia Roberts failing to be anyone other than Julia Roberts.

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