Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Drama Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Mona Lisa Smile is the type of movie that comes out a few decades too late. It’s preaches female empowerment, but at the time it came out, 2003, the message is lost. Do you really need to know that a woman’s role in life is not solely to that of a housewife? That she can have a career as a lawyer? That life’s ultimate goal is not necessarily marriage? These are the types of things that this film preaches, although with its release, I have to wonder if anyone still needs that message hammered home.

The plot begins with professor Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) arriving at a prep school called Wellesley College. It’s an all-girl school, except for the teachers, who can be male or female. This is a school stuck in the past, dominated by the old-school idea that women are to be wives and nothing else. It makes you question why, then, they would choose to go to post-secondary school. Regardless, Ms. Watson is the new Art History teacher at this school. She has no idea what she’s in for.

First class doesn’t go as well as she would have hoped. Every time she attempted to flip to a new slide, a student would interrupt her and explain why the painting in question was important, leaving the teacher without the ability to do any teaching. She inquires into how many of the students have read the entire textbook. Everyone raises a hand. One of them tells her that if there’s nothing more for the day, the students can go do some individual study. That’s the end of the first day’s class, and the supervisor was watching.

At night, she dorms with a couple of other professors at the school, and is told that she can’t let the students know that they got to her. They’re like sharks, apparently, and if they smell blood, she’s dead in the water. The next day’s lesson introduces a painting not in the textbook, which confuses the girls. Open-ended questions like “What is art?” or “What is good art?” are asked, and the students actually have to think for themselves. It’s a good thing they’re generally smart people. Otherwise, they would all probably fail the course now that the syllabus is being deviated from.

Essentially, what the professor begins doing is teaching these young women that thinking for themselves is okay. That’s more or less the message of the entire film, and it is very prominent through most of its scenes. Here is a tradition versus progression movie, one where the majority begins on the former. The school and mist of its students aren’t exactly privy to change, while Roberts’ character isn’t going to back down without a fight, even though she could be fired any day. We know who should win, as the notion of feminism isn’t exactly new, but the message is kind of lost considering it’s not one we need hammered home anymore.

There are a few subplots to keep track of as well. Apart from Katherine’s unorthodox teaching methods and lessons, she’s also trying to find love. She has a boyfriend, although one of the other professors on campus, Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), is quite charming. Meanwhile, a few of the students in her class are going about their lives while being influenced by their Art History teacher, for better or worse. Prominent actors among this group are Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, and Ginnifer Goodwin. Each of them has a problem in life, although the only “villain” of the bunch is Dunst’s character, who hate progressive thinking for no reason whatsoever, and will do anything to sabotage Katherine’s attempts at instilling that value in the heads of her students.

Most of the time we’re watching the film, we bear witness to all of the events that go on around the campus. We end up spending an entire year (or maybe it was just a semester) with these people, and we get to know them well because of the great deal of time we are allotted to get to know them. That works in the film’s favor, I think, as understanding the way the characters think and all of their quirks and charms is almost always beneficial. With that said, there’s ultimately too much going on without there being much importance to it. Why do we care if one of the girls is now dating some random guy? We don’t, so when they break up, it doesn’t matter to us.

A lot of the actual drama of the film doesn’t work. While we get to know these girls, nothing really serious can ever actually happen to them. Marriage isn’t forever, and neither is staying single. And yet, they treat each path like it’s the end of the world. Roberts’ character is the only one who knows better, but when there is nothing at stake, it’s kind of hard to take he production seriously. You get the message that the film is trying to hammer home, but why it matters is lost in the shuffle. These are all rich, intelligent and pretty young women who can do anything they want thanks to all of those traits. It’s not like, one way or another, their lives are going to unravel.

Mona Lisa Smile is ultimately a waste of time. Not because it’s bad or not all that entertaining (it’s occasionally interesting), but because its message is dated and only very, very few people are going to need to hear it nowadays. There’s also not a whole lot there apart from the message to hold the film together, leaving the experience empty and hollow, even if we do spend a lot of time with these characters. The effort is there, but Mona Lisa Smile is about 50 years too late.

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