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Mona Lisa Smile

Is there anything more luridly entertaining than a Hollywood prestige picture gone horribly awry? Probably (this reviewer's always been partial to NASCAR pit-crew brawls), but Mona Lisa Smile (2003), with its well-intentioned message-mongering worthy of Stanley Kramer's late-career worst, nonetheless delivers the ugly, Oscar-grubbing goods, bearing plenty of development scars as it lurches from one interchangeable, if beautifully lit, showpiece sequence to another while telling its groaningly familiar tale of female empowerment. It's hard to imagine that anyone really believed this was a story of particular immediacy, but very easy to conjure studio execs excitedly rubbing their fingers together as images of Dead Poets Society danced in their heads. That film, while popular with audiences in its day, was only slightly more palatable thanks to Peter Weir's sensitive direction, but Mona Lisa Smile has been entrusted to the workmanlike Mike Newell, who's proven throughout his career that he's only as good as his script. Pity for him, then, that he's been saddled with a crushingly ham-fisted screenplay by the deadly writing team of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, responsible for such classics as Mercury Rising, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes. The film tells the familiar tale of Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), a liberated 1950s art teacher who fulfills her lifelong dream of landing a gig at Wellesley College, where she intends to break her young charges out of their Stepford Student molds by challenging them to "look beyond the paint." Though some of the young women are taken with her unorthodox methods, she almost immediately begins butting heads with Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), a marriage- (i.e. conformity-) bound scion of a wealthy east coast clan. Tensions really begin to mount between the two when Katherine trains her tradition-subverting efforts on Betty's best friend, Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), who might harbor a secret desire to attend Yale Law School. Katherine also raises eyebrows when she begins bedding down with Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), the school's Italian-teaching Lothario who has a reputation for sleeping with his students. One of his ex-paramours is the promiscuous Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose potential bisexuality is hinted at early and quickly abandoned. Also getting a quick trip to the showers is the school's lesbian nurse, who gets fired for distributing diaphragms to the supposedly chaste Wellesley girls. The film makes a show of her colleagues' whispered acceptance of her lifestyle in the first act, and, indeed, there seems to be some poignant — if Children's Hour-esque — ground to be covered when it's revealed that her longtime companion has recently passed, but the filmmakers abruptly jettison this potentially interesting arc in favor of more benign uplift. Eventually, the vindictive Betty writes a scandalous expose in the school newspaper that threatens to end Katherine's short-lived career at Wellesley, but when the teacher begins breaking down, Betty does an unconvincing 180, as she recognizes the error of her wicked ways and reexamines her picture-perfect life, which is speedily unraveling thanks to her serial-philanderer hubby. Konner and Rosenthal's script drags down its star and most of its talented young thespians save for the always interesting Gyllenhaal and Ginnefer Goodwin, who provides some unexpected soulful depth to her cookie-cutter ugly duckling character. Ultimately though, the picture, with its by-the-numbers narrative, winds up being guilty of the same kind of conformity that it inveighs against. It's handsomely-mounted hogwash. Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment presents Mona Lisa Smile in an excellent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include lame trio of featurettes — "Art Forum," "College Then and Now," and "What Women Wanted: 1953" — filmographies, an Elton John music video, and a few theatrical trailers. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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