Mona Lisa Smile (5/10)

Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley

My first day in law school at the University of Virginia saw me in Contracts Professor Richard Speidel’s class. It was the start of Speidel’s second year teaching, so he was only a few years older than my classmates and me. Despite that, he scared the hell out of all of us. None of us would have considered challenging him on anything. Most of us slinked down low in our seats, praying he wouldn’t call on us and humiliate us.

When Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) starts her first day of teaching at Wellesley in 1953, her class scares the hell out of her. Never will you see a smarmier bunch of women, who attack Watson and put her down. Thus starts Mona Lisa Smile; a movie that surprised me because it didn’t go where it looked like it was going.

Watson’s students include Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), who gets married and out bitches the bitchiest woman you can imagine, Joan Brandwyn (Julia Styles), a beautiful blond who wants to get married and have a family when Watson thinks she should go to Yale Law School, and Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin), a shy wallflower.

When one considers that screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal were inspired to write this after reading an article about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s years at Wellesley College, it’s understandable that it is full of feminist ideas. There aren’t a lot of men in the film, but the ones that do appear are hardly admirable. And all mothers are pictured as unsympathetic, selfish monsters, as are the school administrators.

I’m turned off by a film that contains normal people conversing in sharp, snappy dialogue hardly heard anywhere outside of the Algonquin Round Table, and that’s what you hear during the first part of this film. These college ladies engage in such clever repartee they’d make Dorothy Parker drool.

In 1953 Katherine is a modern day feminist before her time where, according to this film, Wellesley’s sole purpose in life was to train young women to be good wives and mothers. This doesn’t sit well with Katherine who thinks women should be trained to go out into the world to do whatever they want to do. However, to give the writers credit, Katherine is finally shown that, even though she influenced her students, they made up their own minds. There’s a relatively even-handed approach in the end that allows non-feminists to leave the theater somewhat mollified.

The best part of this film for me, and the most true to life, was the story of Connie Baker and the way she was interpreted by newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin. Connie is not as beautiful and desirable as her friends and she suffers for it. She’s maligned by the bitchy Betty Warren. Her story is touching and extremely well done.

That said, this is an unrealistic, quintessential chick flick with a feminist slant. If you’re a feminist chick, you should love it.

December 17, 2003

The End