Barely Passing

All's not Wellesley when Julia cracks a Mona Lisa Smile

The Mona Lisa Smile in question belongs, of course, to its star, Julia Roberts. Why? For no particular reason, actually. It's just what Italian professor Bill Dunbar (Dominic West) calls her -- Mona Lisa, perhaps because he's an Italian professor possessing few points of reference outside the works of da Vinci. But the filmmakers, deciding this is not reason enough to name their film Mona Lisa Smile, tack on near the movie's end a discussion among know-it-all, have-it-all Wellesley College women about the significance of, yes, Mona Lisa's smile -- which, they deduce, may not be an indication of happiness but a façade behind which an unhappy woman hides. She merely looks content, when in fact she's most likely a sad wreck putting up a front to make a man feel satisfied; in her famous ambivalence lies, most likely, despair. Class, crack open your blue books and write a 5000-word essay on the use of symbolism in modern Hollywood cinema. You have 120 minutes ... go.

If you've at all seen the trailer for Mona Lisa Smile, you no doubt have some idea of what lies in wait for you at the multiplex: Julia Roberts as Robin Williams in Goodbye, Mr. Chips' Emperor Club, or thereabouts. The movie will not prove you wrong nor disappoint, if the pitch -- a liberal art-history teacher goes to Wellesley in 1953 to release brilliant young minds from their velvet shackles -- strikes you as a curve, rather than a lob over the plate. It even comes with a moment in which the women of Wellesley stand on their seats to cheer their liberator, though the seats in question are attached to rosy red bicycles; worry not, I've given nothing away, much like Julia Roberts herself, once more cast in the role of Julia Roberts.

She's playing, ostensibly, Katherine Watson, who's come from California to preach the gospel of modern art to young women raised to believe nothing's more sacred than tradition -- be it the art of Renaissance masters or the practice of marrying upwardly mobile men well before graduation in order to starch their shirts and have their babies. "She came to Wellesley because she wanted to make a difference," says Kirsten Dunst in the voiceover that opens the movie; Dunst is playing a student, but already she sounds like a studio executive making her sale to the board.

Girls just wanna rebel, but not really in the 1950s
Girls just wanna rebel, but not really in the 1950s

Katherine, but of course, will run into all manner of obstacles at Wellesley, among them an administration that frowns upon her progressive thinking and a student body that initially believes her a subversive. Will she win them over with her guts, brains, and that smile, or will she wind up a victim of custom in an institution of higher education that's more like a finishing school for the well-to-don't? Don't look at your neighbor's paper; cheating is not allowed.

Dunst, as Betty Warren, is but one of several It Girls among the student body in this boarding school for rising young starlets. Also sitting in class are Maggie Gyllenhaal and Julia Stiles and Ginnifer Goodwin, the latter a regular on NBC's Ed. Betty is ostensibly the star student; being Peter Parker's secret girlfriend will make you teacher's pet. She's the villain here, a writer for the school paper who outs the school nurse when she hands out birth control to the girls and damns Katherine for teaching the girls there's more to life than a husband and a family. Betty wants, and gets, all that: She marries a Harvard Man (Jordan Bridges) in a wedding so schmancy Tori Amos fronts Brad Mehldau's band, skips class to set up house, and just kills time till the baby-making. Dunst delivers her lines through a sneer perfected by the upper crust; even her sweet compliments thunder like epithets of eternal damnation.

Gyllenhaal, as Giselle Levy, is Betty's opposite -- the girl with a diaphragm and a pack of smokes in her purse and, for the last few semesters, Professor Dunbar as her not-so-secret lover. Goodwin, as Constance Baker, just wants a boyfriend -- or something better than a cello between her legs. Somewhere in between the prim and promiscuous is Stiles's Joan Brandwyn, who's torn between her desire to go to Yale Law School or settle down with Harvard Man Tommy Donegal (Topher Grace), who would prefer them to remain a one-attorney family. Katherine would prefer they all carpe diem -- or, barring that, just be themselves. But it seems she will have no impact at all on the students; their decisions are made for them, not by them. Katherine's just killing time for a couple of semesters before moving on; she's a transient substitute teacher, not a force to be reckoned with.

Maybe that's the sly joke of the movie, made by the director of Pushing Tin and the screenwriters of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Theirs is a glossy put-on, feel-nothing dolled up as feel-good. Katherine galvanizes no one, not even herself; she just is till she isn't around at all. There are no transformations, only traumas; no revolutions, only revelations so obvious they don't shock the system. You will leave Mona Lisa Smile with only the slightest hint of the grin every slick studio movie gives you -- the grin of reassurance and superiority. But you will not be changed, only out about eight bucks.

 
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