Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mona Lisa Smile

By Ed Garea

(Revolution/Sony, 2003) – Director: Mike Newell. Cast: Julia Roberts, Marcia Gay Harden, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marian Seldes, & John Slattery. Color, 117 minutes.

After sitting through this almost two-hour romp I was a little dumbfounded by what I saw. It was billed as a drama, but it stars the toothsome Julia Roberts as an instructor of art history at Wellesley – a woman of intelligence who in turn is an intellectual leader of young women. This would seem, then, to qualify it as either fantasy or science fiction rather than drama; or at the very least an exercise in dark comedy.

Julia is Katherine Watson, a feminist from California (which explains a lot) who has just been appointed as an instructor of art history at Wellesley, that bastion of upper class New England scholarship. In a voiceover at the beginning, we are given a road map of where this film is going:

All her life, she had wanted to teach at Wellesley College. So, when a position opened in the art history department, she pursued it single-mindedly until she was hired. It was whispered that Katherine Watson, a first-year teacher from Oakland State, made up in brains what she lacked in pedigree. Which was why this bohemian from California was on her way to the most conservative college in the nation.

Let’s see, she’s a bohemian, has brains, and is pursuing a lifelong ambition. Isn’t she wonderful? We know from that fulsome introduction that trouble is just around the corner. Is it ever, but it’s really us in the audience who are heading for trouble. We’re about to spend two hours we’ll never get back.

Ten minutes into the film, during her first lecture, she tosses the syllabus away and introduces a photo of modern art with the question “Is it art?” It’s a rhetorical question, actually, to make the little bozos think outside the box, and we discover that Ms. Watson is not there merely to teach art, but rather to teach Life. Now does this sound familiar? Of course: free-thinking teacher comes to conservative school, discovers the students don’t know anything outside their textbooks, and proceeds to teach them how to think for themselves, all the while becoming an idol to the students and a threat to the administration and parents. It comes off to me as a chick-flick version of the sophomoric Dead Poets Society, in which prep school teacher Robin Williams does exactly the same thing.

There are the obligatory scenes where she must win over her students, and we can see this is no easy task. In her opening class, they talk back to her and appear disinterested. But in time we learn that the little bimbos suffer not only the pressures of their strata in society, reinforced by the college administration, but also the peer pressure of fellow student and arch-traditionalist snob Betty Warren (Dunst), who assures them the road they’re on is the correct one, and constantly attacks Ms. Watson for her progressive beliefs. Betty also has a bully pulpit as she writes poison-pen columns for the college newspaper, attacking anyone who should disagree with her perception of life. Why she is this way we never learn, aside that she is strongly under her mother’s thumb. In the end it doesn’t really matter, because all the young ladies are but mere cardboard cutouts of the real things and we don’t give a hoot in hell how their lives work out, for their function is not to be sympathetic but rather to be enlightened by Ms. Watson.

And what does Ms. Watson seek to enlighten them about, besides art? Well, marriage for one thing. Our Professor believes that women should break free from the traditional ties that bind them and go out and have careers. She sees her students as clay, intelligent clay, but nevertheless clay that must be remolded from simply wasting their time at college waiting for marriage instead of putting that time to good use in preparing for a career. Towards this end she is focused on changing the viewpoint of Joan Brandwyn (Stiles), a woman with the potential to get into Yale Law School, but who prefers becoming Martha Stewart instead. It seems to get under Ms. Watson’s skin that little Joanie would rather do other things, such as marry and raise a family than become a lawyer on Wall Street, and she practically writes Joan’s application to Yale for her.

When a character behaves in such a radical manner, there is usually a strong reason. But in this case, we really don’t know the “whys” behind the “whats.” We find out that she came to Wellesley from California to get away from her boyfriend, Paul Moore (Slattery). Why she wants to escape we really never find out. He does pursue her to Wellesley and proposes, but her reaction is as if he pulled a gun on her. While everyone assumes they’re engaged, she goes about of her way to reassure them this isn’t the case at all, and then, in a flash of inspiration, she begins dating Bill Dunbar (West), a teacher of Italian known on campus for heating up the sheets with his students. Yet, at the same time she wants Dunbar to stop his affairs with the students while he’s dating her. It seems that the only reason they get together in the first place is because the directors and writers think it’s cool to have to prettiest folks on campus pair up. Katherine is so possessive that she barges into Bill’s class and interrupts his lecture with an accusation, later offering an apology so soft and lame as to be easily overlooked.

The image we are left with in this movie is that the only thing more repressive than Wellesley is the institution of marriage. Betty’s shrewish mother stage-manages every step of her wedding, and Ms. Warren’s punishment for marrying seems to be that her husband is cheating on her in no time flat. We learn this in a scene so obvious and overacted that our inclination is to laugh out loud. When Ms. Watson first arrives on campus, she moves in with roommates Nancy (Harden), an elocution and etiquette spinsterish teacher who’s concealing something romantic from her past, and Amanda (Stevenson), the stock lesbian character school nurse who is later fired for distributing diaphragms to the girls.

In any “school film” there is the one scene where the teacher is dejected after his or her efforts seem to go nowhere and has the inevitable confrontation with the class. As there is absolutely nothing original in this film, it stands to reason there would be such a scene. What I didn’t expect was that it would so embarrassingly funny to watch.

Our poison-pen columnist, Betty, has scribbled an editorial attacking the good Ms. Watson for her declaration of “war on the holy institution of marriage.” She’s not yet done, however: “Her subversive and political teachings encourage our Wellesley girls to reject the roles they were born to fill.” Talk about embarrassingly obvious; it sounds more like something out of The Nazi’s League of German Girls than an actual editorial for a college newspaper. Katherine’s not going to let this slip by. As she is showing slides at her lecture she begins to lecture her students in a most strident way:

Quiet. Today you just listen. What will future scholars see when they study us, a portrait of women today? There you are ladies: the perfect likeness of a Wellesley graduate, Magna Cum Laude, doing exactly what she was trained to do. Slide - a Rhodes Scholar, I wonder if she recites Chaucer while she presses her husband's shirts. Slide – ha-ha, now you physics majors can calculate the mass and volume of every meatloaf you make. Slide - A girdle to set you free. What does that mean? What does that mean? What does it mean? I give up, you win. The smartest women in the country, I didn't realize that by demanding excellence I would be challenging... what did it say? . . . What did it say? Um . . . the roles you were born to fill. Is that right? . . . The roles you were born to fill? It's, uh, it's my mistake . . . Class dismissed.

The students, having been properly chastised, realize that Ms. Watson was right all along, especially after Betty’s marriage hits the toilet. Joan later remarks to Katherine that, looking back, she would be much more likely to miss having raised a family than miss being a lawyer. Katherine looks at her like a deer caught in the headlights – she cannot seem to grasp the fact that Joan is making her choice from her own free will. While both views are presented, we have been conditioned to see the film through Katherine’s eyes and Joan is painted as a boob for her choice.

In the end, Katherine is given a second year, but she has to conform to the institution’s rules: she cannot date another faculty member (they don’t seem to mind him sleeping with his students); she cannot go off the syllabus, and the dean must approve her lectures in advance. Ever so dedicated to her students, Katherine declines the offer because she can no longer make a difference and runs off to Europe. (If she were really dedicated to those students, she would have stayed, for her very presence on campus alone made a difference.) Her students see her off by trailing her car on their bicycles; the last leaving her side is Betty, who was against her in the beginning (of course).

There are two delicious ironies in this movie. First, for all its Out-There-And-In-Your-Face-Feminism, the director and writers are men. That fact needs no further comment. The other irony is when Katherine, the art history teacher, receives a paint-by-the-numbers art kit. If there is anything that symbolizes this movie, it is the concept of painting by the numbers, for that’s what this film is – an exercise in painting by the numbers. 

If it were only totally predictable, I might be able to tolerate it. But it is also totally pretentious to boot, and that is pushing the envelope too far.

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