CRITIC DOCTOR IS IN: IS IT “MONA LISA SMILE” OR “HILLARY CLINTON SMIRK?”

CRITIC DOCTOR EXAMINES: Roger Ebert (suntimes.com), Betty Jo Tucker (reeltalkviews.com), Jonathan Foreman (nypost.com), Kevin Carr (filmthreat.com), Michael Dequina (filmthreat.com), Claudia Puig (usatoday.com), Peter Sobczynski (criticdoctor.com), Rob Blackwelder (splicedwire.com), Phil Villarreal (Arizona Daily Star), Ed Gonzalez (slantmagazine.com)

Columbia Pictures’ “Mona Lisa Smile” is more boring and worthless than I had imagined – regardless of Julia Roberts’ beautiful smile. What a huge waste of talent, and I’m not just talking about Roberts.

“Mona Lisa Smile” is a movie about Katherine Willis (Julia Roberts) who teaches Art History at Wellesley College in 1953. She finds out that her brilliant students plan to flee academics after graduation in order get married and have kids. Willis decides to use her classroom as a platform to teach the young women to be independent and pursue both marriage and academics. The university administration finds out and requires Katherine to stick to the school’s curriculum, but you know that’s not gonna happen with Roberts in the movie.

Roger Ebert (suntimes.com) said, “I find it hard to believe that Wellesley College was as reactionary in the autumn of 1953 as ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ says it is — but then I wasn’t there. Neither were the screenwriters, who reportedly based their screenplay on Hillary Clinton’s experience at Wellesley in the early 1960s.”

That was the screenwriter’s first mistake, Roger – using Hillary Clinton’s politically-biased viewpoints as a model for this movie.

Betty Jo Tucker (reeltalkviews.com) said in her review, “I attended a prestigious women’s college like Wellesley at about the same time covered in this movie. None of the students, teachers or administrators remotely resembled anyone depicted in ‘Mona Lisa Smile.’ Students didn’t date the male professors or try to humiliate new instructors. Administrators didn’t sneak into the classroom to evaluate a beginning teacher’s first meeting with her students. And it would have been unthinkable for any instructor to meddle in our personal lives.”

Indeed Tucker did not attend the same school, but her own academic accomplishments would make Roberts’ Mona Lisa simply smile. Tucker said in her book “Confessions of a Movie Addict”: “Love, marriage, and children became the most important things in my life for the next 20 years…” Thanks to Tucker’s husband, Larry (who helped with family chores), she was able to finish her educational degrees. She writes, “Larry always joked about my degrees when introducing us at parties by saying: ‘This is my wife, Betty Jo – A.A., B.A., M.A., Ed. D., and I’m Larry – L.A.R.R.Y.’”

Tucker’s own academic outcome is a far cry from what was presented in “Mona Lisa Smile.” Roberts’ 1953 Katherine Willis character comes across more like a 1960′s Hillary Clinton. Jonathan Foreman (nypost.com) said, “Given everything her character does and says, Roberts’ Katherine Watson might well have parachuted into 1953 Wellesley from the late ’60s, if not the present day.”

The film’s failings ultimately rest on the screenwriters. The actors are like cartoons drawn by liberal artists with intentions on pleasing both liberal and conservative viewpoints. Some critics blame the actors.

Kevin Carr (filmthreat.com) calls Kirsten Dunst one of the “grandest acting disappointments of her generation…after a string of two dimensional roles in everything from ‘Dick’ to ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ to ‘Bring it On’ to ‘Spider-Man,’ it appears that Dunst gave up acting when she rounded out of puberty.”

For the love of God, Kevin! “Bring It On” is one fun movie because of Dunst and her energizing performance. Did you see “Crazy/Beautiful” (2001)? This is probably her best performance to date. Michael Dequina (filmthreat.com) said it best in his review of the film: “While her looks have changed with age, Dunst’s acting ability hasn’t. She once again demonstrates her versatility and depth with her nuanced portrayal of Nicole.”

Carr admits that Dunst’s character in “Mona Lisa Smile” is “not given much to work with and is left with no option but to just go through the motions.” I agree. All the talented actresses suffered from the material given them in this I Hate Lucy-like script:

* “The college students are not nearly as interesting or likable as ‘Dead Poets” prep-schoolers. This is due not to sexism so much as to the quality of the screenplay.” Claudia Puig (USA Today)

* “Talented actresses are wasted on material that is simply beneath them.” Peter Sobczynski (criticdoctor.com)

* “The problem isn’t just that screenwriters Mark Rosenthal and Lawerence Konner borrow so liberally from ‘Dead Poets Society,’ ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’ etc., it’s the dumb, narrow-minded way in which they depict the place and the period.” Jonathan Foreman (nypost.com)

* “‘Mona Lisa Smile’ is such an appalling waste of talent it actually made me mad. Scratch that – furious.” Rob Blackwelder (splicedwire.com)

* “The characters are mindless robots programmed by repressive society…if the women of the 1950s were really this stupid, there would have never been a feminism movement.” Phil Villarreal (Arizona Daily Star)

* “Sadly, even talented actresses like these couldn’t make their characters as written seem more than caricatures.” Betty Jo Tucker (reeltalkreviews.com)

Oh, and Kevin? Dunst’s character did have the best moment in the movie when she confronts the issue of her cheating boyfriend. The screenwriters did get that one right and the scene was perfectly directed.

Ed Gonzalez (slantmagazine.com) summed the movie up best: “Manufactured to appeal to liberals and conservatives alike…, the golly-gee ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ is a work of abject delusion. It’s impossible to miss any of the film’s irony considering how hard the filmmakers work to shove their subversions into the spectator’s face.”

Perhaps “Mona Lisa Smile” should be renamed “Hillary Clinton Smirk.”

– CRITIC DOCTOR




Posted on January 26, 2004 in Features by

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