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I got very sentimental watching Mona Lisa Smile. I was born in 1954, the year in which this film is set. Everything looked like it did when I was growing up, from the clothes to the coffee percolator. I got quite verklempt. Anyway, this film does a very good job of recreating life in the 50's at Wellesley College. Mona Lisa Smile tells the story of a young woman (Julia Roberts) hired to teach Art History at the college. Roberts has some very modern ideas, for 1954, and she immediately runs afoul of the very snobby conservative establishment that teaches the students (Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles etc) to get married and have babies as soon as possible, rather than pursue careers. When Roberts parachutes into their lives, Dunst is about to get married, Stiles is weighing marriage versus law school and Gyllenhall is sleeping with one of her professors (Dominic West). Also in the mix are a Domestic Science professor (Marcia Gay Harden), who is also Roberts' landlady, and the school nurse (Juliet Stevenson).
Mona Lisa Smile gives us a chance to see Roberts (age 36), the "it girl" of the last decade, up against some of the women who are out to dethrone her, Dunst (age 21), Gyllenhaal (age 26), and Stiles (age 22). Roberts isn't in any danger here but it's fun to watch her act with the young ones. The only one to really break out of the pack here is Gyllenhaal who once again explodes off the screen. She's been around for a while but no one really noticed her until she appeared in Secretary last year. The only other competition for Roberts is the "older" women. Juliet Stevenson (Truly Madly Deeply, Double Helix, Bend it Like Beckham) can act rings around anyone but unfortunately she is gone after the first half hour of Mona Lisa Smile. Marcia Gay Harden won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Pollock but since then she has been playing frumpy disappointed women of a certain age (Casa de los Babys, Mystic River). She reprises that role again here. Harden really needs to do something different. Dunst and Stiles are good, but their roles, particularly Dunst's role, are a bit one dimensional and they don't rise above the material. Dominic West (28 Days), who plays first Gyllenhaal's and then Robert's love interest, is hunky and good.
The script for Mona Lisa Smile is oh so
predictable although it apparently gives a pretty realistic view of Wellesley
the 50's. Wellesley started out radical and became radical again in the
60's, when students such as Hilary Rodham were there. But in the 50's, Wellesley
had become pretty conservative and staid. It is interesting to watch the
story unfold and think about how much has changed and hasn't changed for women.
For instance, it was illegal to provide birth control to women in Massachusetts
in 1954. Of course, this film is being made in 2003 so Roberts' character
seems very modern and up to date, while the others seem dated. Mainly, though,
it is the performance of Julia Roberts that carries this film. Your personal
feelings about Roberts, whether you like her or hate her, will probably decide
whether you like Mona Lisa Smile more than
anything. I like Roberts a lot, but
she is one of those actors who produces strong positive and negative feelings
among moviegoers. One way or the other, she is still the "it girl."