If a chick-flick version of Dead Poets Society is on your Christmas list, Santa may be kind to you this year with Mona Lisa Smile. Set in 1953, Julia Roberts is cast as Katherine Watson, the new free-willed art teacher at Wellesley College. In an attempt to free up the East Coast, blue-blooded, conservative mindset of the all-girl student body, Watson has her work cut out for her — which sounds a lot like Dead Poets Society to me. But Roberts doesn’t come close to capturing the audience with her role as Robin Williams did as the inspiring and life-changing prep-school English teacher. Why Roberts was chosen at all for this part is perplexing.
The Hollywood darling of yesterday brings nothing new to the celluloid time capsule in terms of acting, apart from being more calm than usual (Roberts’ attempt at maturity?). Her overused facial expressions, such as the bewildered stare, the slow smile and the “I’m going to cry in two seconds” facade, are again pulled out of Roberts’ bag of acting tricks. Luckily for us her most famous of tactics, the too-loud-for-Surround-Sound laugh, is only used once, and briefly. In addition, Roberts somehow looks out of place in the New England elite setting of cute rich girls—like she was plucked from a poster and stuck into the scenery.
But when her character, Watson, takes her class on a field trip to see a piece by Jackson Pollock, the metaphor becomes clear. She is a fish out of water, as Pollock was. Unfortunately for Roberts, the Pollock canvas is considered nothing short of brilliant, while her role in this film is just plain ordinary.
The performances by the other actors are just above mediocre. Debutantes Julia Stiles and Kirsten Dunst are acceptable in their roles as the sweet Joan and the brutally bitchy Betty, while Maggie Gyllenhaal pulls from her experience in The Secretary to present an oversexed and semi-lesbian coed named Giselle. The only standouts are found in the small supporting roles: the prudish yet sympathetic etiquette teacher played by Marcia Gay Harden; and the always lovable Topher Grace from That ’70s Show.
With an opportunity to create a film that could be compared to Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, the attempt at feminist strife sadly falls way short in Mona Lisa Smile. Characters almost unbelievable to start with develop too fast and too drastically.
At one point during the film, Dunst’s character asks an important question, while staring at a da Vinci, “Mona Lisa is smiling, but is she happy?”
If she was watching this film, probably not.
Gina Pasfield is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.