Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, John Slattery, Marcia Gay Harden, Topher Grace
Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
In a world that told them how to think, she showed them how to live.
Academy Award-winner Julia Roberts (Best Actress in a Leading Role, Erin Brockovitch, 2000) leads an all-star cast featuring Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Marcia Gay Harden. Mona Lisa Smile is a funny, inspiring and uplifting film about an art history professor with a lot to teach about life and much to learn about romance.
$11.528 million on 2677 screens.
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby 2.0
Runtime: 120 min.
Release Date: 3/9/2004
• “Art Forum”
• “College Then and Now”
• “What Women Wanted: 1953”
• Elton John “The Heart of Every Girl” Music Video
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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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Mona Lisa Smile (2003)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 10, 2004)
I won’t claim to know what project first told the story of the inspirational teacher, but that tale certainly came about many years ago. From To Sir, With Love to Dead Poet’s Society, the theme has recurred frequently in film, and it gets another flogging in 2003’s Mona Lisa Smile.
Set in the fall of 1953, young art history teacher Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) gets her dream job as a professor at Wellesley College, an extremely conservative school, especially for a California liberal like herself. She moves in with prissy speech, elocution and poise teacher Nancy Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden) and lesbian school nurse Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson).
On her first day of classes, Katherine finds that she underestimated the students. They all read the assigned text before the class, so they all know everything she tries to teach. The students treat her brusquely, and Katherine also receives a mild reprimand from her superiors due to her poor first day.
On her next attempt, Katherine deviates from the syllabus, presents some new material and asks the students to appraise it. This forces them to think for themselves and not just regurgitate when they read.
We spend some time with a few of the students. Betty Warren quickly establishes herself as the bitchy defender of the status quo, while the flirty bisexual Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) represents a more bohemian side of things. Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the allegedly unappealing girl that Betty feels no man wants. Betty’s mother (Donna Mitchell) serves as the president of the alumni association, and she runs her daughter’s life with an iron fist. Amanda provides contraceptives to the girls, a “crime” for which Betty writes a newspaper exposé that results in the nurse’s termination.
We also meet Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles). She dates a Harvard student named Tommy Donegal (Topher Grace) and likes the idea of becoming a lawyer but hasn’t made plans as she figures she’ll just get married after graduation. Betty eggs her on in that pursuit, especially when her fiancé apparently helps Tommy look for engagement rings.
You don’t suppose that Katherine will spark her students’ greater ambitions and provide the impetus for them to potentially break with the status quo, do you? You don’t suppose that negative ramifications will ensue, do you? You don’t suppose that Katherine will develop a romance with fellow Professor Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), apparently the only single, attractive man on campus, do you?
You don’t suppose that this is a predictable load of condescending claptrap, do you? Indeed, I can think of little to say about Mona Lisa Smile other than that. Frankly, I don’t understand the point of the film. 40 years ago it would have seemed provocative and eye-opening, but nowadays, who cares? Once upon a time we could view Smile as a way to introduce girls to the options before them, but last time I looked, college women had more on their mind other than just marrying well.
Because it’s set so far in the past, Smile might think of itself as history, but it’s way too one-sided to be even vaguely objective about the era. Katherine comes across as always in the right, whereas everyone who opposes her appears narrow-minded and judgmental. I won’t claim that the “marriage uber alles” standpoint is even remotely acceptable, but c’mon, don’t treat those who feel that way as stock imbeciles.
Actually, “imbeciles” is a little broad. Old maid Nancy comes across as desperate and pathetic, while most of the others are simply cruel and hateful. Betty represents a cartoon villain with no more dimensionality than the Wicked Witch of the West. She exists to create friction and little else. I like Dunst, but she gets little to work with via this one-dimensional harpy.
At least the film gives her a personality, unlike Joan. Basically a cipher character, she’s there as little more than a plot point. It seems extremely inevitable that Joan will take to Katherine’s mind-opening concepts and that Betty will claw against them. Joan fails to exhibit any form of character, which is a shame since Stiles is a talented performer. The movie does attempt some character twists, but these seem absurdly illogical.
Even Katherine’s romantic interest seems ridiculously artificial. When she arrives at Wellesley, she leaves behind a long-distance lover named Paul (John Slattery). The movie dispenses with him quickly and abruptly, and for no apparent reason other than to open the door to love with Bill. It feels fake and silly.
That pretty much goes for the whole movie. Mona Lisa Smile provides little more than a snide and dismissive view of a bygone era. What point it serves I can’t discern, as the flick seems to exist simply to let liberal-minded folk feel superior. I agree with the flick’s viewpoint but definitely don’t like the arrogant way it develops its pointless story.
The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus D+
Mona Lisa Smile appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As one might expect of a movie that hit screens less than three months ago, the DVD looked consistently good, though it never seemed exceptional.
Sharpness offered generally positive clarity. On occasion, wider shots looked a little ill-defined, but not to a substantial degree. For the most part, the movie looked nicely concise and accurate. No issues connected to jagged edges or shimmering occurred, though a little edge enhancement occurred. As for print flaws, I noticed none in this clean and fresh presentation.
Given its period setting, Smile emphasized a moderately stylized look. The flick accentuated soft and gentle tones that appeared appropriately saturated but without great vivacity. The colors were tight and well depicted, however, and seemed to represent the photography well. Blacks came across as firm and deep, while low-light shots seemed smooth and nicely visible. Ultimately, Smile presented a consistently positive image.
Essentially a quiet character drama, I didn’t expect much from the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Mona Lisa Smile, and the audio followed suit. Unsurprisingly, the mix focused heavily on the forward spectrum. Music presented nicely delineated stereo imaging, while effects gave us a decent sense of ambience and atmosphere. Surround usage seemed sporadic. A rainstorm opened up the mix acceptably, and a few other occasions added some minor environment. Overall, however, the rears did little more than reinforce the front.
Audio quality appeared fine. Speech was consistently natural and crisp, with no issues related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects generally played a minor role, but they always sounded accurate and distinctive, and I heard no problems related to distortion. Music was lush and lively, as the score seemed well-depicted and bright. Nothing about the movie’s soundtrack stood out, but it seemed solid enough to warrant a “B”.
Despite the movie’s high profile, the DVD includes only a smattering of extras. In the “Featurettes” domain we find three programs. Art Forum runs six minutes, 31 seconds as it discusses art in general. We see movie clips, shots from the set, and comments from actors Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Ginnifer Goodwin, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Marcia Gay Harden. They discuss their feelings about art and some of the work on display in the film. In particular, they relate their impressions of the Mona Lisa. It’s not a terribly interesting piece.
College Then and Now fills 14 minutes and 37 seconds as it looks at university life in the past via the same mix of film snippets, behind the scenes images, and interviews. We hear from director Mike Newell, producers Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff and Deborah Schindler, and actors Julia Roberts, Dunst, Stiles, Gyllenhaal, Harden, Goodwin, Laura Allen, Jordan Bridges, Dominic West, Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Topher Grace. We get some statistics that compare life for women now and in the Fifties and hear about these factors. It’s pretty general and pedestrian, and also fairly self-congratulatory, as it seems to do little more than to puff up the flick. At least we hear a little about the “finishing school boot camp” through with the actors went; that’s about the only interesting part of the piece.
Finally, What Women Wanted: 1953 takes 10 minutes and 41 seconds to explore its subject. It follows the same format as the two prior pieces; we get comments from Roberts, Newell, Goldsmith-Thomas, Stiles, Dunst, Schindler, Harden, Bridges, Grace, Schiff, Goodwin, and Gyllenhaal. They discuss the lack of options for women in the Fifties and their general state of mind. It seems a lot like the prior program, and also fails to present much useful information.
Next we find a music video. This features Elton John’s “The Heart of Every Girl”. A pretty basic clip, this one uses the standard format. It mixes movie clips with lip-synch shots of Elton. It’s an uninspired song and a dull video.
The DVD opens with trailers for 13 Going on 30 and Spider-Man 2. Those ads also appear in the DVD’s “Trailers” domain along with promos for Mona Lisa Smile, Big Fish, The Company, 50 First Dates, My Best Friend’s Wedding, America’s Sweethearts, Stepmom and Something’s Gotta Give. Lastly, we get filmographies for director Mike Newell, writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, and actors Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Marcia Gay Harden.
I’ve seen movies with a less open-minded worldview than Mona Lisa Smile. Let’s see – there’s Triumph of the Will... and that’s about it. At least the Nazi propaganda flick had a purpose; what point Smile serves escapes me, as it comes across as little more than smug, elitist claptrap. The DVD presents consistently solid picture and audio with a small mix of bland extras. Despite some first-rate talent in front of the camera, Mona Lisa Smile almost fully fails as a movie, so I can’t recommend this DVD to anyone other than the flick’s die-hard fans.
Viewer Film Ratings: 3.5918 Stars
| Number of Votes: 49