Julia Roberts’ famous smile is the foundation for an obvious minor irony in Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile. For, as Berkeley-educated art history teacher Katherine Watson, she doesn’t do much smiling, at least at first. Arriving at Wellesley in 1953, the first time instructor runs smack into the stodgy stiffs who dampen spirits and toe lines in movies of this sort. That would be, movies wherein the plucky protagonist resists the rules and endeavors to rescue her students from their sure-to-be turgid fates. Oh, if only they might learn to smile as poignantly as their brilliant mentor.
One of these students ostensibly narrates Katherine’s story, from her first day to her last (“She made up in brains what she lacked in pedigree”): initially dismissive of her new “bohemian” professor, Betty (Kirsten Dunst) believes her mother’s decree that she must marry and keep a well-appointed house to be happy. Other students in need of reeducation include familiar types: like Betty, Joanie (Julia Stiles) has a fiancé (Topher Grace, who speaks maybe two lines), but she also wants to go to law school (her options expand when, on first try and at Katherine’s urging, she’s granted early admission to Yale). “Plain girl” (and sensual cellist) Connie (Ginnifer Goodwyn) is desperate just to have a boyfriend. And freethinking, cigarette-smoking Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is sleeping with her charismatic Italian teacher, Bill (Dominic West), who in turn sets his sights on Katherine. This even though Giselle warns him that Katherine is too good for him; indeed, that she is herself too good for him, which she most definitely is.
Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal’s predictable script situates Katherine between prissy, pathetic roommate-home ec teacher-and I Love Lucy fan Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), and lesbian roommate-school nurse Amanda (Juliet Stevenson), forthwith fired for distributing condoms to students. Both women have lost much-missed partners — Nancy a man to WWII and Amanda her 30-year “companion” — and so each becomes, in her way, an object lesson in what Katherine doesn’t want to be.
Katherine has her hands full, even aside from looking for romance (though this happens too, as this is, after all, a Julia Roberts movie — as you are resoundingly reminded when she awakes from her first tryst, her hair fully tousled in trademark Julia style). When school newspaper editorialist Betty labels Katherine “subversive,” well, the battle between backward and forward thinking is on. Petty Betty will bring down her nemesis and Katherine will impress upon her students the value and rewards of independent thinking. In this context, it’s understandable why co-producer Julia Roberts says, “I don’t think we made a chick flick. We just made a movie” (Reuters 17 December 2003). That is, the movie is about autonomy, community, and rebellious acting out, solid American Way stuff. It seems clear why Roberts doesn’t want Mona Lisa Smile only to be a chick flick, as the genre is perennially a ghetto (even if it is occasionally lucrative). Opening opposite the King Kong of boys’ pix, Lord of the Rings‘ third installment, it might do well to hang on to a “counter-programming” designation.
The film follows a chick flick formula (especially if you consider Dead Poets Society a chick flick in boys’ drag). That is, Katherine makes determined tracks from ostensibly certain failure to admirable winning over of the native population’s hearts and minds. Following a first day classroom disaster (students have already memorized the text book), Katherine resolves to challenge their conventional assumptions and adherence to book learning as the only measure of intelligence. She exposes them to Chaim Soutine’s Carcass of Beef and Jackson Pollack, and in a cutesy choker moment, she brings a paint-by-numbers Van Gogh kit to class, as an example of what “society” is doing to art (just how she negotiates among the blurry lines between commercial product, high art, and the very stuffiness she means to startle out of her girls is unspecified).
One evening, seemingly out of the blue, Katherine is invited to attend a drinking party hosted by the girls’ “secret society” (named, tellingly, the Adam’s Ribs), where she confesses her own romantic backstory, and so wins over even more converts for her daring: she’s rejected marriage on purpose, rather than being a lesbian or being cast off by a man. Surrounded by girls whose boys tend to deceive, tyrannize, or die, Katherine offers what seems a viable alternative route — teaching in a school where she gets a hard time for being smart, proud, and astute.
In other words, Betty and her sniffy ilk hold more cards (among them, Tori Amos cast as a singer at her wedding, a seeming nod to the film’s presumed college girl audience). Just so, they threaten Katherine’s job, should she persist in pushing her newfangled philosophies. As she is equally judged by her classmates, the dazzling, generous Giselle is most visibly beguiled by Miss Julia; she’s the most convincing audience stand-in (though the group of students seems something like a boy band, meaning that you might choose any of them as a way in, save for odious girl Betty). This might be the film’s most interesting notion, positing the Jewish girl among the WASPs as its most explicitly appealing and consistently endearing character.
Still, Katherine takes up the vast majority of the spotlight, conveniently literalized in the classroom when she stands before the projected beam of the slide projector. In her last, bravura performance in this capacity, she shows a series of circa-’50s advertisements, featuring women making meat loaf, cleaning house, and wearing girdles that set them “free.” “What does that mean?” she asks, her forehead vein bulging with frustration. For one thing, it means, cookie cutter roles are maddening, then and now. Can we please move on?