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Mona Lisa Smile
2003 - PG-13 - 115 Mins.
Director: Mike Newell
Producer: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff, Deborah Schindler
Written By: Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal
Starring: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, John Slattery, Marcia Gay Harden
Review by: Carl Langley

So this is what an inspiring movie looks like.
If there was an easy, most simple route to take, I could some up Mike Newell’s latest film, Mona Lisa Smile, in the shortest review I have ever had to write: Dead Poets Society minus the testosterone. Unfortunately, I am required to write more than 450 words so I can acquaint you with its unpromising, inexcusable endeavor at stirring something memorable. We are forced to watch second-rate material at best and we see how uninspired the filmmakers actually were throughout the construction of this whole film. If you contribute to the profit of this movie, you will be sandbagged.

Unlike Dead Poets Society, Newell’s latest mawkish incubus is disadvantageously clichéd. With a script that waffles between becoming a tearjerker with light humor and ridiculously sad, not only is Mona Lisa Smile a bromidic melodrama, but it torpedoes the message it tries to give emphasis to. The failed attempt at its preached lesson makes the experience more hilarious and is a mockery to any female who feels empowered through the duration of this film.

Robin Williams, uh, I mean Julia Roberts plays Katharine Watson, the new arts history professor on the woman-dominant campus of Wellesley College during the 50’s. Her goal is to teach, as well as inspire, but when she discovers all of her students are one step ahead, she has to take an alternate approach to her teaching method. She also finds out that the school that features some of the most intelligent young women in the nation are only attending college as a prerequisite to marriage. She interacts with her students, hoping to break them out of what they think is their traditional roles and help them scholastically succeed further in life. Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, and Gale Hansen portray her students. Err, wait, I mean Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ginnifer Goodwin play Betty, Joan, Giselle, and Connie respectively - the awaited brides-to-be. Sorry, that will not happen again.

The main flaw is that the film never inspires or has dramatic impact and that is where Dead Poets Society was compelling. Part of the film has Julia Roberts doing the work the movie wants to portray and the other half has her battling her own self-deficiencies. While she is not flirting with the hunk French professor (Dominic West), she is insecure about her previous love (John Slattery), who flies across the nation to propose to her. It focuses too much on the icing and not the cake itself. In other words, the extras are heavy and the body of work, well, needs work.

The acting is certainly not one of film’s weaknesses. The only problem is it features one-dimensional performances from a list of prominent actresses that any producer would dish out seven/eight digits for. Julia Roberts is absolutely stunning most of the time and it is no different here. The role never challenges her though; she could have easily done this role without even reading the script. Kirsten Dunst effectively climbs a mountain to shape Betty into one merciless squaw. Julia Stiles adequately shines in her role of Joan, who is struggling to decide whether to marry her college sweetheart or pursue law school at Yale. Finally, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ginnifer Goodwin actually carry some funny stints as sexually craved girls searching for love; the first one more so than the second.

Mike Newell is no slouch when it comes to producing an ensemble piece, as he has proven with Ella Enchanted and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Mona Lisa Smile is a surprise; this is not something expected from him. Hopefully he will find a better tune for his next project. Julia Roberts can flash her famous gorgeous smile and draw in the enormous smiling crowd, but the only expression to be gathered from this film is a wince.
Movie Guru Rating
Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better. Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better.
  2 out of 5 stars

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