Mona Lisa Smile

Talk about an easy pitch. Imagine selling “Mona Lisa Smile” to a studio. What’s it about? Well, it’s “Dead Poet’s Society” with chicks. So it’s a chick flick? Not really, it’s a people flick. Who’s attached? Julia Roberts. Good choice, Oscar winner, can open a film. Who does she play?

A strong-willed 1950s girl’s school teacher helping her book smart but repressed students see their potential. Excellent. She’s a crusader, like “Erin Brockovich.”

Who play the students? Kirsten Dunst. Excellent. We’ll get the “Spiderman” crowd. Who else? Julia Stiles. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Isn’t she the sister of Jake? Yeah, but she was also the star of “Secretary.” Strong actress. Who does she play? The rebel student with a crush on one of her professors. Perfect. Who’s directing? Mike Newell. Loved “Fours Weddings and Funeral.” Sounds like a big holiday movie. Make it.

Of course “Mona Lisa Smile” sounds like a winner. Big stars, strong director, familiar premise. What could go wrong? How about a script by the guys who wrote the remake of “Planet of the Apes” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Lawrence Konner and Marc Rosenthal have made a career out of writing serviceable screenplays. If nothing else, their script for “Mona Lisa Smile” is extremely serviceable. It gives each and every Ultra-Brite smile a character trait and some sort of mid-film crisis in which to distinguish their individuality.

What it lacks is emotional honesty, an anchor to weigh down the film’s many melodramatic moments. The writers fail to make a credible case, preaching from the pulpit about female empowerment, while relegating their characters to one-dimensional paper dolls who end up settling. Even Robert’s Katherine Watson, who sees leaving her California boyfriend to teach at New England’s Wellesley College as an act of strength, eventually succumbs to tradition.

She sees her students as blocks of clay in which she can mold into women who want more out of life than being a wife and a mother. It doesn’t take long for Katherine to see that Wellesley is a breeding ground for such tradition, and takes the students under her wings, defying assigned curriculum to teach them about life. What she doesn’t take into account is that not all of her students want to change. Just because they don’t share her dreams of feminism doesn’t mean they’re not happy.

With better writers, “Mona Lisa Smile” could have been more than a Saturday afternoon chick flick. Don’t get me wrong. I like chick flicks, but not when they have nothing new to say. Everything in Konner and Rosenthal’s script is so familiar you could lapse into a coma and still know how it ends.

Grin and Bear It Ring of familiarity in “Mona Lisa Smile”


Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Topher Grace, Jennifer Goodwin, Marcia Gay Harden. Directed by Mike Newell. Rated PG-13. 119 Minutes.


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