out of Five
Running time: 117
A waste of good actresses – Mona Lisa Smile would dearly love to be an all-girl Dead Poets Society, but it fails dismally, thanks to a tedious script and a dull, uninspiring central performance from Roberts.
On paper, Mona Lisa Smile looks like a dream come true: one of the biggest stars in the world alongside three of Hollywood’s hottest young actresses; a concept only an idiot would turn down (“It’s Dead Poets Society with chicks!”); and a respected director (Mike Newell, who made the excellent Donnie Brasco) to tie it all together.
However, something, somewhere, has gone horribly wrong, because Mona Lisa Smile is dull, tedious and infuriating in equal measure, despite the best efforts of its mouth-watering cast. (If you plan on seeing it based on the concept and cast alone, then don’t say you weren’t warned – otherwise, please note that plot spoilers follow).
Dead Poets Society II
Set in the 1950s (like – hey! - Dead Poets Society), Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, a progressive art history teacher who lands a job at a conservative all-girls college in New England (like – hey! - Dead Poets Society) where her liberal, high-falutin’ ways soon irritate the uptight establishment while winning over the hearts of even her most difficult pupils, just like in – hey! - Dead Poets Society. Except none of them die.
Although the school prides itself on educating its young ladies, Society still expects them to marry immediately and become housewives, so Katherine faces an uphill battle from the start.
Her ‘star’ pupils include: Kirsten Dunst as prissy bully Betty, who writes articles in the school paper labelling Katherine a communist; Julia Stiles as Joan, who has a glittering career ahead of her unless she chucks it all in to marry her patronising fiancé (That 70s Show’s Topher Grace, nicking several facial expressions from Michael J. Fox); Maggie Gyllenhaal as Giselle (the slutty one, and one of only two likeable characters); and impressive newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin as Connie (the other one), the “unattractive” girl, who of course, isn’t remotely unattractive and whose storyline on its own would have made a more interesting movie.
Despite its glittering cast, only two performances really stand out: Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is effortlessly sexy and appealing and yet looked down on by the others, making you wonder exactly why she’s hanging out with such stuffy girls in the first place; and Ginnifer Goodwin.
Dunst tries her best with the ‘Nasty Girl’ role, but can’t quite pull it off and Stiles seems vaguely uncomfortable in her role. There’s also good support from both Marcia Gay Harden and Julia Stevenson, though both characters are completely wasted, despite being the most interesting.
The worst performance is by Roberts herself – it’s as if she’s had all her ‘Star Quality’ sucked out of her. She’s entirely too serious throughout the film and even her romance (with Dominic West) is boring. In fact, the only interesting thing about her character is the (unconfirmed) rumour that she had to flee California because of a liaison with Hollywood actor William Holden.
Script Must Shoulder Blame
To be fair, the script has to shoulder most of the blame. With a plot so obviously lifted from Dead Poets Society, you’re constantly expecting particular scenes to come up and are constantly disappointed when either a) they don’t (no suicide scene, no tragedy, no real humour), or b) they do, but are spectacularly bungled in the process.
As far as Katherine’s ‘inspirational’ qualities go, they amount to: giving the class a lesson on Jackson Pollock; trying to talk Joan out of giving up her future; and having a quiet word about contraception. There are also some truly awful bits, such as the title-referencing scene where Dunst looks at the Mona Lisa and says, “She’s smiling. Is she happy?”
However, it’s the equivalent of the ‘O Captain, my captain’ / standing on the desks scenes in Mona Lisa Smile that really grate, as there are not one, but two of them. The first is a mind-numbingly bad scene which has the entire class (minus Dunst) presenting Katherine with a collection of paint-by-numbers Van Gogh Sunflowers (which actually seems to contradict the message of the film, but no matter).
The second has Katherine leaving, with all the girls furiously peddling after her on their bicycles waving goodbye and – yes! - plucky, newly-reformed little Kirsten peddling hardest of all. And crying. (Okay, this scene does do its job, but you’ll hate yourself for falling for it).
In short, Mona Lisa Smile is patronising, badly written and just plain boring, despite its oh-so-fabulous cast. Best avoided - you'd be much better off watching Dead Poets Society again instead.