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Mona Lisa Smile

Artful Dodger

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There is a certain sort of not-very-good film that holds the potential to be redeemed later as a different sort of entertainment: the over-earnest project that trips right over its own feet, unspooling one head-shaking, guffaw-inducing scene after another. Such films are best enjoyed in the privacy of one's home, ideally with a few bitchy friends and a six-pack or two.

 

In that spirit, allow me to recommend Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile, a witless piece of retroactively applied post-feminist twaddle, dressed up in lovely clothes and featuring this season's crop of pretty-but-smart young actresses, under the tutelage of last century's pretty-but-smart super-actress, Julia Roberts.

 

Roberts is Katherine Watson, the new art history teacher at Wellesley in 1953. We're told she's "radical," and we know this because she wears Indian jewelry and has a rather plain hairdo. Gosh, and Wellesley is such a hothouse of conservative, stuck-up rich gals. In the first of the film's gut-busting scenes, Watson's young cashmere-twin-set know-it-all charges recite the entire year's syllabus like proto-Stepford Wives on the first day of class. Watson is stunned (the little bitches!), but re-groups and retaliates by showing them a slide of -- gasp! -- abstract art, which the girls universally agree is icky. It's gonna be a long year.

 

The only four students we meet are a quartet of one-dimensional female archetypes picked for our easy viewing pleasure: Kirsten Dunst, channeling late-career Joan Crawford, is the alpha-bitch; Julia Stiles, nice girl, nice brain, chasing nice husband; Ginnifer Goodwin, the token kind-hearted "fat girl"; and Maggie Gyllenhaal, a bright spot on screen, but reduced to playing the slutty outsider (hint: her last name is L-e-v-y).

 

Roberts somnambulates through the film, like her Erin Brockovich on Quualudes. She's doesn't put up much fight: What kind of self-respecting feminist timidly asks her new lover -- seemingly the only man-on-campus, Italian professor Bill (Dominic West) -- to "please" lay off diddling students while he's sleeping with her. You go, girl.

 

Mona Lisa aims to be a feel-good feminist overlay on the past (right on, we just made the '50s better!), but what it says is ultimately pretty retrograde: It's OK to go to college only to find a man if that's what you really want to do, and radical art teachers should conform or move on. That Katherine Watson -- she's like Shane riding into the snakepit of academe to lay some righteous beatnik art theory on these prissy girls (saving them from themselves, hurrah!) -- before nobly heading out into the melancholy sunset to further spread the Gospel of Jackson Pollock to other needy souls. One and a half cameras

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