It’s more than a little ironic that Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile contains a sequence where its heroine decries the emergence of Van Gogh paint-by-numbers kits, since the movie itself is perhaps the most virulent example of a paint-by-numbers creation imaginable.
Despite its amazing female star-power, the film really is nothing more than a switcheroo version of Dead Poets’ Society — right down to a lump-in-the-throat, tear-in-the-eye, faint-wave-of-nausea ending on bicycles (take my word for it), where the students do everything but acrobatically stand on their seats and start reciting “Captain, My Captain.” By all rights, they ought to have titled this movie Dead Painters’ Society and been done with it.
Yes, Mona Lisa is glossy and slick, and it does quite adequate service as a Julia Roberts vehicle. And whatever else can be said about the film, she delivers the goods. For that matter, the same could be said of the bulk of its predominately female cast (though Julia Stiles’ obviously affected accent got on my nerves, I admit). Whether or not the goods they deliver should have been marked “return to sender” is entirely another matter. It’s not just that the movie deals from a stacked deck — as a star vehicle, I expected it would do that — but that it resorts to the old false-shuffle.
It’s always risky to set a story in the more-or-less-recent past, since it becomes fairly simple to refute the depiction — and since it’s so easy for those responsible to adopt a superior attitude, based on their own “modernity.” Mona Lisa falls victim to both these things, setting up a heroine from that font of all knowledge and progressive thinking, California, who comes to the hidebound, tight-assed East Coast of 1953 to bring enlightenment to Wellesley College.
Let’s overlook that the artists in the forward-thinking movements that Katherine Watson, our heroine, is touting have far more in common with New York City and the East Coast than they do with Berkeley, as that troublesome detail wouldn’t suit the film’s purpose. And maybe we should ignore, too, the presumptuousness of Katherine’s venturing into another part of the world to show the local yokels — or in this case, the local snobs — how it’s done in the real world of California. That whole air of “I love this place and am going to turn it into something else” hangs heavily over the film, which at least has the savvy to flirt with the question (even while fully justifying its heroine in the bargain).
I guess that’s more than I had any right to expect from screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, whose credits include the big-screen version of The Beverly Hillbillies, the remakes of The Desperate Hours and Mighty Joe Young, and the Tim Burton remake of Planet of the Apes. (Perhaps the duo thought this was a remake of Dead Poets’ Society — it would explain much. Now, if they’d just included some gangster monkeys holding a family of hillbillies hostage, they might have been onto something!)
It’s interesting, too, that it never occurs to Katherine that it’s pretty darn forward-thinking of the school to have casually accepted the lesbian relationship between school nurse Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson) and her late “companion.” It’s also kind of hard to swallow that the school found nothing shocking in that circumstance, and yet is ready to fire Armstrong for dispensing contraceptives. Part of the problem with the script is that the film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, or what it’s trying to say. Combine this with a bad case of the quaints about the “dark ages” of the 1950s, and the whole thing becomes pretty indigestible as it serves up predictable course after course of overcooked dramatics.
At the best of times, Newell is an uneven director; he’s known for solid craftsmanship, but also for being utterly reliant on his material. He’s not a filmmaker who can transform a bad script into the semblance of a good film. While I wouldn’t slight his contributions to Four Weddings and a Funeral or An Awfully Big Adventure, those were movies where he had both A-list casts and A-list scripts. Here he has an A-list cast, but something around a C-list script.
There’s also a question of how well-suited he is to the material. There has — in the past — been a demonstrable percentage in letting British directors helm distinctly American stories: There’s the freshness of an outside point of view at work. Yet Mona Lisa is very much a period piece, and Newell is clearly at the mercy of his screenwriters’ vision of the era — not the best course in this case.
Mona Lisa can be recommended for its generally marvelous attention to period detail (I do question those coiled cords on telephones in 1953, however), for a solid movie-star turn from Roberts, and for the rare chance to see this much top-notch female acting housed in one film. Too bad it isn’t housed in a better one.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke