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Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Retro Review: Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Mona Lisa Smile
Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Topher Grace
Genre: Drama
Worldwide Lifetime Gross: $141, 337, 989  

Plot: Katherine Watson is a recent UCLA graduate hired to teach art history at the prestigious all-female Wellesley College in 1953. Determined to confront the outdated mores of society and the institution that embraces them, Katherine inspires her traditional students including Betty and Joan to challenge the lives they are expected to lead. 

'The 2000s Answer To Dead Poets Society Punctuated By One Of Julia Roberts's Best Ever Roles I Wished She Took On More Often'

This movie is to Julia Roberts, as is Dead Poets Society to Robin Williams but also it has a touch of Dangerous Minds where the students don't take to the lecturer at first, but later wins them over. 

Both movies are set in the 1950s, both John Keating and Katherine Watson are free-spirited thinkers who teach at conservative, elitist, single-sex schools and takes their students under their wing and inspiring them to think beyond their constraints by resorting to unconventional methods. Katherine gets the girls to think for themselves using art as a way to exercise their moral obligations, and John does the same for the boys with poetry in his English classes. Finally, they did not turn their students into versions of themselves: they simply wanted them to think for themselves, live by their own rules, have their own opinions. 

The film has been unfairly labelled as a Dead Poets Society rip-off and whilst this accusation has some merit, three distinctions to this argument are that A) this movie does not deal with poetry, but rather art history as a subject in a liberal arts school within a conservative backdrop. B) Another difference between this movie and Dead Poets Society is that the students in this film are more rebellious and don't immediately take a liking to Katherine, as quickly as the boys do towards John. C) it doesn't take sides as it shows & presents both the students, Catherine and the supporting characters, but for the male love interest, equally and fairly & D), unlike Dead Poets Society there was a romantic subplot involving the main protagonist and that a lot of the film features scenes with Katherine in them, whereas John doesn't feature in Dead Poets as much. Another strange thing is that Mona Lisa Smile is labelled as a 'chick-flick'; nobody cited Dead Poets Society as a 'boys flick', so why use this term when it is anything but that and because it is set in an all-girls institution? 

Like Robin Williams, both himself and Julia Roberts are performers you'll either love or can't stand (I like both of them equally as individuals, but lean more towards Robin when it comes to most of his movies than Julia. & I loved both of them in the Peter Pan movie, Hook)- they are more associated with playing a certain type of lead character, more-so than characters that people wouldn't normally associate themselves with. For Robin, it is as the funny, goofy, manic guy in a comedy, for Julia it is as a cute and attractive looking girl in a romantic comedy. Yet in John Keating and Katherine Watson, both individuals are the inspiring teachers, whose intentions are to make a difference to not just the educational world but to people's lives and to the world, in general. 

Contrary to most critics, this is not an anti-men or male-bashing film, but a fish-out-of-water -like movie, where a new teacher enters a new school or establishment and tries to win over the students. I used to study art back at school and I do art in my spare time when I find the time to do so, so this film, I would say, speaks to me a lot more than Dead Poets Society

As for Julia Roberts, it's like she can't catch a break: she is lambasted for starring in typecast rom-com movies or as the love interest, - something I take issue with also as I'm not into most of those films myself (alas, I don't really care for The Mexican, Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Eat Pray Love) -, but when she experiments with a movie such as this, people rag on her and prefer her to stick with doing rom-coms altogether. She turns in an impressive, honest and commanding performance that is on par with Robin Williams as John Keating of Dead Poets Society, and encapsulating the character's very thoughts, feelings and mannerisms, despite the not-so-interesting setting, and it is a bit of a shame that since this movie, Erin Brockovich and The Pelican Brief, she hasn't had as many progressive and varied movies & roles that really stretch her acting abilities.

The movie could have done without the love subplot involving Katherine, however; I didn't like that a character as strong and independent as herself would have an affair with a Professor, who was open to sleeping with other students. That part just didn't work with me. 

The rest of the supporting cast give exceptional performances as well: Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal were good as the students and unlike the boys in Dead Poets Society, they weren't flat and one-dimensional in terms of personality and characterisation. Whilst Julia Roberts's performance is one of the best from her career, no doubt. It would have to be in the top 8 performances of hers for me, alongside the likes of Steel Magnolias, Erin Brockovich and The Pelican Brief

Just like in my previous review of Dead Poets Society, I really couldn't get into that movie, despite Robin Williams's brilliant turn, but with this movie, this one was just about slightly more accessible because I found 2, 3 scenes that weren't boring. Had this movie been set in the present day, it would have been far more appealing and interesting. 

But Mona Lisa Smile is a good companion piece to Dead Poets Society and the two films do correlate with each other in many ways.   


Pros +

- Julia Roberts performance is really impressive here 
- Slightly compelling narrative 
- Deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dead Poets Society 


- Can get boring and sleep-inducing in places 
- Film could have done without the romantic subplot where Katherine has an affair with one of the other lecturers
- Story wasn't anything special & is unexceptional 

Final Verdict:

Director Mike Newell (of whom I'm not a fan of) and writers, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal have dished up a somewhat interesting drama about life at an educational institution. The comparisons between this movie and Dead Poets Society will always be made - one may call it 'Dead Poets Society with breasts'- and yet, nonetheless, Julia Roberts really excels in her understated role as Katherine Watson, from start to finish and in one's view undoubtedly, this is her second best performance after Erin Brockovich, which she hasn't replicated since. 

Some people have said she was completely miscast here; for me, she did extremely well & thus, she sold me on her performance.

As a film itself, this one was slightly compelling and the pacing of it was less slow. There wasn't anything that made it really special and nor was it a movie that made us want to go 'wow'. If it had been set in the present day with male and female students, alas Dangerous Minds, then I would have found it more appealing. 

But Mona Lisa Smile is not bad; the movie's status is mainly elevated by the impressive main casting of Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden and Julia Stiles & their performances and is a worthy entry that deserves to stand alongside 1989's Dead Poets Society in terms of similarity, - i.e. radical-thinking teachers teaching students at so-called elitist schools, despite how unexceptional these movies are and on a film level, they are very much on a equal playing field to each other. 

But alas, this is definitely worth seeing for Julia Roberts in a movie where thankfully, she isn't playing someone's girlfriend, love interest or wife-to-be. 

If you liked Dead Poets Society, then you'll enjoy this one as well. 


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