Mona Lisa Smile
Director: Mike Newell. Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Marcia Gay Harden, Marian Seldes, Juliet Stevenson, John Slattery, Jordan Mitchell, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Topher Grace, Tori Amos. Screenplay: Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal.

Sometimes, as Leonardo da Vinci forever reminds us, ambiguity is tantalizing and profound. At other times, as a whole host of 2003 holiday-season movies are reminding us (paging Messrs. Minghella, Arcand, and Perelman), ambiguity is a kind euphemism for pretentious imprecision.

And at still other times, as the "makers" of Mona Lisa Smile have demonstrated, ambiguity is the unwitting product of outrageous disorganization, wild ambivalence, and an unerring instinct for, well, error. A big-budget Christmas release starring Julia Roberts would seem to be an occasion for tight studio control and totalitarian audience-testing, all of which could lead Mona Lisa Smile in one of two directions. Julia seems to have a bent both for bucking the rules of corporate/male domination (Erin Brockovich, Something to Talk About) and for folding rather docilely into primly obedient fables of old-fashioned sentiment and female subservience (Notting Hill, Everyone Says I Love You). One of her favorite modes, of course, is to play the seeming rebel or snarky iconoclast who, beneath her seven veils of sass, is walking straight back through the gate of dominant ideology: Pretty Woman, Sleeping with the Enemy, The Pelican Brief, Conspiracy Theory, The Mexican, and Ocean's Eleven all leap to mind as examples. I found her appearance in the last film rather fascinating. Julia almost literally inhabited the status of the glittering spoils in a retro-chauvinist, dick-waving war between George Clooney and Andy Garcia. Many of us were perplexed: from Brockovich to booby prize in only a year? Then again, Tess was angry in a crustier way than other Roberts women, the bitter knowledge of her humiliated position smeared right across her face. The character was too negligible to be worth recuperating, but as the awkward, slicing angles of Julia's body and her line-readings kept lashing out to jab her costars and Soderbergh's elegant images, Tess grew surprisingly interesting, a spiky anemone where one expected a shrinking violet.

Mona Lisa Smile, with Julia front and center and a whole cast of brainy ingenues and stalwart character actresses surrounding her, has an even more bizarre and even more fathomless relation to gender politics. But however engrossing its contradictions, the necessary first step to saying anything about Mona Lisa Smile must be an unblanching acknowledgment of its own insane awfulness. This is just a mind-blowingly bad movie, ill made and seemingly conceived by aliens, a wrong-note rag like you've never heard. Julia Roberts as a Berkeley bohemian? Wellesley College, Wellesley College, described in Kirsten Dunst's opening voice-over as the most conservative school in the country? (I guess Eastern Mennonite came in second.) And apparently Wellesley hires its tenure-track faculty sight-unseen from faraway shores, all questions of qualification and temperament blithely thrown to the winds? And how about this auditorium of college undergraduates, elsewhere characterized as whizzing electrons of passion and distraction, nonetheless prepared on the first day of an art history class having each read the entire textbook in advance? All of them naming and dating Cro-magnon inscriptions, Babylonian friezes, and Byzantine mosaics off the tops of their heads?

As a university teacher myself, I must confess to a particular interest in Hollywood's depictions of the college classroom and in how gigantically and hilariously they tend to get it wrong. Even within that bemusing tradition, though, Mona Lisa Smile is so inaccurate that it crosses a line into surrealism, or science fiction; watching Barbra Streisand, Chivalry Expert stride around a large Columbia lecture hall in The Mirror Has Two Faces, calling on students by name and murmuring seductively about prime numbers on dates, seems like a Frederick Wiseman documentary by comparison. But none of this should be a surprise. It's not like Hollywood movies about teachers exist to, as they say, keep it real. Whether Robin Williams is hopping around on desks or Michelle Pfeiffer is slinging consolation Snickers bars at her dangerous minds, movies in this genre are always about something else than what they're literally about. Uplift, nostalgia, indignation, whatever.

Mona Lisa Smile's ostensible ambition is to say something about women emancipating the minds and lives of other women. The triangulated shape of the story and characters should be fairly simple: Roberts is the liberatory free spirit, her students the sheep who will become her converts (with an allowance here and there for a show-stopping skeptic or martyr), and the entrenched crones played by Marian Seldes and Marcia Gay Harden will be the emblem of institutional authority that will topple rather blithely beneath the dual assault of Julia's offbeat lesson-plans and her glinting teeth. Men are often the variable element for a script like this: will the film refuse all male charms in its single-minded pursuit of the morays of independence, or will it allow (encourage!) some enlightened exception from the doltish masses to sweep these damsels off their feet?

The presence of men is almost tangential in Mona Lisa Smile. The screenplay, such as it is, by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal fiddles around a little with a long-distance Californian lover for Julia and a lusty, untrustworthy romantic (an Italian professor!) with whom Julia shares the obligatory lay by the fire, but both of these guys are blips. The only times I really noticed them were during their exit scenes, when the film's hasty impatience to dispense with them registers more strongly than anything else they've done. Meanwhile, a couple of the girls find some Harvard men to disappoint them in predictable ways. The only male we really know in the movie is Charlie Stewart (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), the geeky cousin of the Dunst character, who finds happiness with boy-shy Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) in a sweet if rather earnest subplot. Meanwhile, since we're at Wellesley, all the teeth-gnashing and party-pooping we expect from Men In Charge are perpetrated by Seldes as the formidable dean and Harden as the in-house professor of poise (!), also Roberts' landlady. The script seems to throw Harden a whole new characterization in each scene—loopy, sad, stern, alcoholic, all of it pretty condescending in one way or another. Harden entertains herself (or else indulges her own condescension) with a poor man's version of Patricia Clarkson's performance in Far from Heaven. The result is funny but a little easy, and like her more fêted appearance this year in Mystic River, it's a little overdone for my taste.

Speaking of Far from Heaven, though, you'll recall that Haynes' film was a serious and ambitious study of a broad contrast between the complexity of emotional and social stratifications in 1950s America and the eerie artificiality of film's conventions for portraying those things. Mona Lisa Smile, as should startle no one, has smaller dreams. I'm positive the film would be content to deliver a single message in a pleasant package, if only it could decide what that message should be. The director, Mike Newell, a seeming schizophrenic who has given us Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, and much in between, has already dabbled in the so-called "woman's movie" once before. The result was the dispiritingly inoffensive Enchanted April, in which we (re-)learned that every woman is a distinct and delicate bloom on the tree of life, gorgeous in her eccentricities and deserving of respect. The only real question it raises is what the Italian word for "Ya-Ya!" might be.

This time, Newell doesn't come across as a limited talent so much as an absent overseer. It is far easier to assume that he took vacation days throughout the filming than that he actually instigated these banal montages, permitted this hackneyed dialogue, failed to notice these glaring disjunctions between takes that mar several scenes. The costumes are fun but erratic: sometimes Julia favors embroidered peasant blouses that belong to a decade-later iconography of bohemia, and at other times it's all pegged pants and primary colors. The ensemble seems ill-at-ease, as well they should be. Not only are they enacting a wreck of a script, but their styles don't mesh all that well. Among the students we know the best, Dunst reminds us how limited her expressions are when she isn't having any fun. As a brainy beauty with come-and-go dreams of Yale Law, Julia Stiles attempts some vocal and physical mannerisms to at least match the period, but the stiffness in her performance derives more from her acting than from the era. Only Maggie Gyllenhaal, god bless her, with her wry slinkiness and breezy wit, repeatedly breathes life into the co-ed scenes. She's actually much better here than in John Sayles' appreciably superior Casa de los Babys, where John Sayles' trademark ultra-sincerity seems to hem her in a little.

Even Gyllenhaal can't do anything, though, about the ridiculous conceits of the script, such as its lazy requirement that the girls are all roommates and friends outside the classroom even though they don't seem to like anything about each other. Gyllenhaal and Dunst fight like cats, not because they have a tempestuous relation but because their characters seem to really detest each other, until the script has them riding off to live together in Greenwich Village. Who needs a peacemaker when the screenplay can iron out all conflicts and disagreements instantly? And those are just the situational paradoxes and most obvious lapses in judgment. It is on the level of ideology that Mona Lisa Smile seems truly baffled by itself. At different times, the movie takes on every possible tack with regard to women's education and intellectual independence. We are coached to believe that women must be without men; that women who eschew conventional relations with men are sad but nonetheless endowed with resilience and wisdom; that women who love themselves will attract the right men; that it's hypocritical for anyone, but especially a feminist, to assume that women who love marriage, men, or children are necessarily deluded reactionaries; that talented women are ruined by social expectations; that everything women do is the expression of their unique personality, and all of them are ultimately good people. We are taught that women who can't think freely about art can't possibly think freely about their own lives, but then art pretty much vanishes from everyone's consciousness, even the teacher's, once everyone has moved onto more "real" matters like boyfriends and marriage and Europe and the law.

Watching Mona Lisa Smile try to make up its mind about what it wants to say is like watching pigeons in a park: the movie just sort of mills around, pecking, blindly banging its head into things, until the sheer tortuousness and relentlessness of its wanderings become weirdly fascinating, hinting at some great hidden pattern that isn't fully revealed. What does it mean that this film wants so desperately to say something about the lives of women and girls, but can't find a single coherent thing to say? The film is too insistently contemporary in tone and style to seem entirely genial to the milieu it describes, but it's also too dewy and cozy to be fully or cleverly ironic. And this isn't the kind of movie where the sheer variety of messages suggests a rich sense of the world's complexity. This is not Fassbinder; it's barely even Funicello.

The script's view of romance is ultimately rather dark: Roberts gives two men the fare-thee-well, Harden keeps raising her glass to a husband who is either dead or who left her, Dunst divorces her society-marriage husband, Stiles follows her own new husband right out of her path to law school, and Gyllenhaal is jilted by all the age-inappropriate men she's been messing around with. Only the geeks are together, and that after much crying and explaining and sprinting around quads. Why has Julia made her least romance-positive movie right when she's tied the knot in her own life (and yep, there's Mr. Moder down there in the photography credits)? I don't pose that question out of celebrity-stalking voyeurism, but merely to say that her presence in this particular storyline is odd, perhaps explicable because she's still repaying favors to career-maker Joe Roth, whose studio developed the movie, and to producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, who was Julia's agent forever. Even longtime pals like these haven't given her a clear character to play, though: Katherine Watson doesn't bowl over Wellesley college with revolutionary insights so much as she grasps at straws when her initial, conservative lesson plans don't pan out. Is this because Katherine, too, hasn't really learned to be true to herself? Well, yes, probably, but she learns the skill so quickly that the movie clearly wishes we'd forget that she ever strayed.

Maybe it's no accident that I kept thinking about Hillary Rodham Clinton while watching this dumb flick. I admire Clinton tremendously, but the emphatic and clashing emotions she seems to elicit from the public—from supporters who are disgruntled when this shrewd politician reveals any kind of "agenda," from men who say they hate her and then rush to avow that they don't hate all women, from public-sphere feminists who champion women's autonomy but criticize her for responding to her husband's betrayals in her own self-determined way—seemed to rhyme closely with the sharp internal discord on display in Mona Lisa Smile, which isn't just an addled movie about women but a movie that seems completely and utterly flummoxed by the very task of saying anything to or about women. If films of the 1970s and 1980s gave us sharply polarized depictions of women's lives (the hard-won independence of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, the misogynist, ball-breaking caricature in Network, the pratfalls of mothers attempting to work in Baby Boom), post-Hillary Hollywood seems to generate movies that can't manage to commit to any particular position, though it is constantly implied that some position is being taken.

Hillary, of course, was a famous student of Wellesley, and since that school otherwise seems like an unlikely choice as the bastion of housewifely conservatism that the film needs it to be, it became tempting to view Mona Lisa Smile as a kind of indirect document of the massive confusion, doubt, and hysteria that seem to surround Clinton and the millions of shrewd, capable women for whom she is sometimes taken to be emblematic. Here, in 2003, as the United States and the larger world flex their most conservative muscles, even as they declaim over and over about new dawns of peace and cultural tolerance, one wonders: do Hollywood or its paying customers really like women? Does Hollywood have a worse problem than creating too few roles for actresses—does it actually have no idea what kind of person an actress might play? Isn't it odd that this ode to female self-emancipation seems so slavish to stereotype, so beholden to convention? Is it quietly subsersive that Mona Lisa Smile seems so inept, though, in reproducing even the simplest generic benchmarks—is it fair to be a little gratified that everyone on-screen looks ornery and uncomfortable inside this limited story, as though the whole cast is perpetually telegraphing to us, "Can you believe the shit they ask us to do?" Or do they have no idea they look this way: tired, bored, listless, coerced? Do Julia Roberts and Mike Newell and the rest of them think they have created a perfectly fine film, with an innocuously entertaining story elevated by a gingerly dash of Social Relevance?

There is nothing really good about Mona Lisa Smile, except that its badness is so convoluted, so widespread into nearly every crease and fold of the picture, that it seems like a worthwhile snapshot, a perfect emblem of woman-targeted filmmaking in an age that has low standards for filmmaking and intensely confused ideas about women. Sociologists could have a field day watching this movie; I doubt anyone else will enjoy it much. Then again, the two pre-teens sitting next to me at the Pacific Gaslamp 15 in San Diego, CA, were crying mightily by the end. I've read Mona Lisa Smile being described as a tearjerker, and like everything else about the movie, I can see vague feints in that direction but no real follow-through. Nothing genuinely sad happens here, nor anything worthy of a happy-cry. I wish I had asked these girls: what, exactly, are you crying about? D+

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Original Song: "The Heart of Every Girl"

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