Well, Char, as you say, we do agree on a few things about Mona Lisa Smile. Maggie Gyllenhaal is bewitching. She’s got star quality, and every time the camera would pan Prof. Watson/Roberts’s classroom, I’d hunt out her sardonic take on the professor’s arty antics. I predict great things for Gyllenhaal and for the rest of the crew who play the Wellesley quartet: Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Marcia Gay Harden. If nothing else, “Smile” may be the new “The Group,” the 1966 Seven Sisters flick (Vassar this time) that launched the careers of a bevy of gorgeous and talented young actresses, most notably Candace Bergen.
And Julia Roberts is indeed pitifully miscast, bearing out the adage that the star who acts as her own producer has a fool for a casting director. Julia excels at playing trailer trash. Period. She excels at looking like trailer trash, and when she hikes up her skirt to show off her never-ending legs, tousles her lush hair, dons stiletto-heeled pirate boots and hoop earrings–and smiles that wide, edge-of-tears smile, we can’t take our eyes off her. “Pretty Woman” was the the defining Julia Roberts movie, and she achieved apotheosis in “Erin Brockovitch” (yeah, yeah, it was trial lawyers’ propaganda, but Julia in miniskirt and mules, her legal assistant’s clipboard clutched in nail-parlor hands above her barely covered bosom, lit up every scene). But Julia, like many an actress with aspirations to the intellectual life (always a mistake), yearns To Be Taken Seriously. So she keeps taking Serious Roles, usually having something to do with the arts: she was a photographer in Stepmom, a hotel art connoisseur in Ocean’s Eleven, and now, an art professor. Off come the colorful ho-togs, up goes the hair into a old-maid bun, on go the drab duds, usually topped by an awful hat of some sort (in Mona Lisa Smile, it’s an oversize beret). The trend started as early as “Pretty Women,” when they dressed Julia up in a Queen Mum picture hat and a Queen Elizabeth II garden-party frock to show that she was a lady underneath.
To make a movie like “Mona Lisa Smile” work, you have to have a powerful and, yes, sexy bohemian presence to go to work against the powerful setting of Wasp aristocratic culture. What if the movie had starred in-your-face Sigourney Weaver (in tight capris and chain-smoking) instead of vulnerable-lovable Roberts? What if, instead of standing in the classroom showing them art (boring!), she’d dragged them down to Greenwich Village and showed them artists? In their slummy, fascinating habitats, with their cheap wine, bullfighting posters, and NYU-coed mistresses in black tights and Vampira makeup. Not a Jackson Pollock, but Jackson Pollock. Watson could have had, instead of a couple of drippy academics for boyfriends (the kind any self-respecting Wellesley girl would have ground into her ashtray before breakfast), how about a platoon of greasy beatniks showing up on campus at all hours of day and night? Reciting goofball poetry and inhaling marijuana? Give those sheltered alums of Miss Porter’s School something to chew on!
Instead, “Mona Lisa Smile” fails so miserably in the confrontation department that I could only exult in every scene, as the earnest Prof. Watson in her sensible shoes and peasant blouses tried to make a dent in a wealthy and self-confident culture. And it’s a good thing, too. For the past decade or so, in films like “Pleasantville” and “The Hours,” Hollywood has been trying to sell its Betty Friedan/Lillian Hellman revisionist history of the 1950s. It goes like this: First there was World War II, so liberating, what with Rosie the Riveter, Stalin as our buddy, and guys ‘n’ gals falling into the sack together because who knew what tomorrow held. Then came The Horrible Fifties, when they took away Rosie’s job, executed the Rosenbergs, and forced women to bake pies and wear girdles instead of exploring liberation. This dreary ideological drumbeat of a story line usually doesn’t go over with movie audiences (“Pleasantville” and “The Hours” were resounding flops). “Mona Lisa Smile” tells the same story, but fortunately, its makers got carried away by the very culture they were supposed to be denouncing.