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Mona Lisa doesn’t smile big

| Tuesday, February 3, 2004

The 1950’s, an all-girls school, Julia Roberts, Kristen Dunst, Julia Stiles – no one expected an Oscar, but this attempt at a female-focused version of “Dead Poet’s Society” is much more disappointing than anyone expected. “Mona Lisa Smile,” known by most as the latest Julia Roberts film, is a movie with a good message that is nice to watch, but it is far from being called a great and entertaining film.

Set in 1953, Julia Roberts plays the part of Katherine Watson, a liberal, Bohemian professor from California who moves to New England to teach at the prestigious female school Wellesley College. Watson is greeted by snobby girls, strict rules and heavy judgment from her students and the school. The snobbiest girl is Betty Warren, played by Kristen Dunst. Friends and roommates are played by Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ginnifer Goodwin. Watson expects to find intelligent and driven women in the students at Wellesley, but instead she finds intelligent girls focused on fitting into the societal mold for woman at that time. Watson then goes forth on her mission to convert the assumptions of the girls, and the film ends with a mix of tears and happiness – big surprise.

Although the costumes are terrific and Roberts’s character is inspiring, not much of a message is conveyed in “Mona Lisa Smile.” Roberts’s character is seemingly contradictory, as she chastises the girls for settling for a life dictated by men, while at the same time she pursues a relationship with the male teacher known for affairs with his own students. While this imperfection does make Watson a bit more real as a character, it works more to make her seem hypocritical. Watson seems too noble to be so easily drawn into a relationship with the smooth-talking, war-hero Italian professor. The love story element seems thrown into the plot and hurts the cohesiveness of the storyline.

As far as the acting itself goes, Roberts does a generally good job, playing a variation of the same character she plays in most of her movies: the unique, quirky, beautiful (insert profession here). Dunst and Stiles, the two other major stars in the movie, are simply awful. They are awkward, not believable, and just plain annoying to watch. The motivations of their characters are unclear, and although the script left much to be wished for, the poor-caliber acting by these two is just inexcusable. Gyllenhaal and Goodwin, on the other hand, do a terrific job with their characters. Gyllenhaal shines as the fiery Giselle, and Goodwin is adorable as the quiet Constance. The rest of the acting is summed up in one word: bad.

While “Mona Lisa Smile” is a poor-quality film in many ways, it does maintain some endearing elements. Sitting through it is not painful; it does bring a bit of laughter and a touch of tears to any person willing to invest himself in the storyline. The film, however, by no means deserves to be recognized as a great movie. The only motivation to go see it would be a love for Julia Roberts and a discovery of six dollars on the ground. Otherwise, just rent the good version with Robin Williams.