In “Mona Lisa Smile,” a vibrant and independent-minded teacher shows her students a paint-by-numbers kit for a Van Gogh picture to demonstrate the difference between art that is insightful and meaningful and mindless repetition of pretty images. The problem is that the movie itself has a paint-by-numbers script and little more to offer than pretty images. The result has some glossy entertainment value but a long way from art.
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is an art history teacher who comes to Wellesley, “the most conservative college in the nation” in the very conservative 1950’s. Just to make sure we don’t miss the point, we are told right from the beginning that Katherine “made up in brains what she lacked in pedigree” and that she did not want to fit in; she wanted to make a difference.
At first, Katherine is intimidated by the students. They have an easy mastery of the reading material and a “claws underneath their white gloves” ruthlessness in preserving the status quo, which means their position at the top of the social hierarchy.
Betty (Kirsten Dunst) is the most ruthless and acts as the leader of the girls. It may be her uncertainty as she approaches her wedding and what she says is everything she ever wanted that makes her so resistant to any attempt to think independently. Or it may be that she treats the other girls the way her mother treats her because that’s all she knows, or because it gives her a sense of control, or because it lets her believe that her mother must care about her.
Katherine’s other students include brainy Joan (Julia Stiles), insecure Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin), and reckless Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal). In between their lessons on poise and how to entertain their future husbands’ bosses, Katherine tries to teach them to question the conventional assumptions about art and about their dreams about the lives they want to lead. This is all a bit too subversive for the authorities, leading the the inevitable “I’ve been getting some calls about your teaching methods. They’re a little unorthodox for Wellesley” conversation. Katherine must examine her own dreams in order to teach her students the lesson she wants them to learn.
All of the actresses look wonderful in their elegant little hats, white gloves, twin-sets, tulle, and pearls. And teacher-student is one of the most reliably appealing relationships to portray in a movie. Add in the ups and downs of five different romantic relationships and the sheer pleasure of seeing some of the most talented and engaging young stars in Hollywood and there is plenty that is fun to watch.
But there is no real insight or spirit in the movie and its dumbed-down portrayal of the post-WWII, pre-Betty Friedan era is particularly disappointing, limited to images of conformity like girls rowing crew and practicing synchronized swimming and a poster explaining the ladylike way to cross one’s legs and references to the wish to return to the “normal” days before the war. It is just too easy to have Katherine’s colleague and landlady say “Don’t you love chintz?” and turn down a chance to go out in the evening so she can stay home and watch television.
Juliet Stevenson brings warmth and depth to a regrettably brief appearance as a gay school nurse and Marcia Gay Harden does her best with an under-written role as a stereotypical “old maid” that is more a relic from the 1950’s portrayals than a commentary on them. Katherine’s character is inconsistent to the point of being erratic, especially with regard to her own romantic involvement. Roberts is reduced to relying on her most reliable movie star tricks — her “game girl” laugh, dazzling smile, and moist gaze — to fill the gaps. It isn’t enough. In this paint-by-numbers movie, most of the spaces are left blank.
Parents should know that the movie has very explicit sexual references for a PG-13 movie, including promiscuous characters, adultery, and discussion of birth control (which was illegal in the era portrayed in the movie). Characters drink, some get tipsy, and some abuse alcohol. Just about everyone smokes. Characters use strong language including an ugly anti-Semitic epithet. Strengths of the movie include its efforts to address the issues that would be raised by the feminists of the 1960’s and its positive portrayal of a gay character who is accepted without prejudice (though dismissed from her position for other reasons).
Families who see this movie should talk about why each of the characters makes the choices that she does.
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy other magnetic teachers who inspire students and get in trouble with administrators in Dead Poet’s Society and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The classic if overwrought The Group is based on the experiences of author Mary McCarthy and her friends at Vassar and after graduation. Another in this genre is the Wendy Wasserstein play Uncommon Women…and Others, about a group of students at a Wellesley-style college in the late 1960’s.