Movies often suffer from untimely releases and unfair comparisons. That's because we audiences and critics can't seem to describe one film without comparing it to another. Take the classroom genre. When "To Sir With Love" came out in the sixties, though it won rave reviews, it still wasn't QUITE as good as "Blackboard Jungle," in which Sidney Poitier also starred nearly a decade earlier. In the late eighties, "Lean on Me" was all but considered an African-American rip-off of "Stand and Deliver," which starred Edward James Olmos as a tough Latino educator. Meryl Streep came up against the same thing when "Music of the Heart" was released years after "Mr. Holland's Opus," with reviewers finding more fault with her film about a music teacher than the one which starred Richard Dreyfus. And before "The Emperor's Club" had even played a week in the theaters, reviewers were already writing, with all the smugness of that famous debate stinger "Sir, I met John Kennedy, and you're no John Kennedy," that the Kevin Kline film was no "Dead Poets Society."
Which brings us to "Mona Lisa Smile," another film critics complained was no "Dead Poets Society." But for those viewers who didn't care much for the turn that "Dead Poets Society" took near the end—going from upbeat and Robin Williams funny to suddenly tragic and tear-jerking—that's not necessarily a bad thing, is it?
But the title can be misleading, because it conjures up a hair-tossing, wide-smiling Julia Roberts aping for the cameras in almost every scene. That never happens. Roberts turns in an understated performance as Katherine Watson, an art history professor who comes to staid Wellesley College in 1953 and finds herself defending her California ideals and trying to teach young women programmed to be trophy wives that there's more to life. With Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ginnifer Goodwin turning in fine performances as her students, the film feels more like an ensemble effort—much like Roberts' debut film, "Mystic Pizza," which offered a few pepperoni-laced slices of waitressing life in a single East Coast tourist season, shifting its focus from girl to girl. The cameras often forsake Roberts in order to track the personal lives of snooty Betty Warren (Dunst), whose "perfect" society wedding is forthcoming; Joan Brandwyn (Stiles), an engaged young woman with law-school capability; Giselle Leny (Gyllenhaal), the lone woman without sexual repression who sleeps with her Italian professor; and Connie Baker (Goodwin), the ugly duckling who hopes for a transformation.
Director Mike Newell goes to great pains to create a film that actually feels like the fifties. But as in "Pleasantville," beneath the surface of this uptight society the women are restless or sad, while their husbands smoke pipes and make decisions without consulting them. Women had only three socially sanctioned careers open to them at the time, we're reminded—secretary, nurse, or teacher—and most were in college preparing for marriage, learning such things as "how to cross and uncross your legs" like a lady. Enter Watson, who's knocked for a loop her first class by her bright students, but gets up off the mat and fights back. These intelligent women, she reasons, are great at memorizing facts and learning by the book, but they're no Einsteins when it comes to thinking for themselves or challenging traditions. In no time at all, her classes draw more students than any other teacher.
The arc of Watson's character and the eventual conversion of the girls is as sure a thing as the Yankees making it into post-season play, and so the subplots involving the girls are a welcome diversion. However, one subplot which makes no rational sense whatsoever involves Watson's romantic interests. Though she dumps her long-distance boyfriend from California for being so presumptuous as to propose to her and announce it to friends without first hearing her answer, she inexplicably is drawn to a sleazy Italian professor who sleeps with many of his students. How feminist is that? Sexual mores aside, as an idealistic educator she should be repulsed by someone who abuses the student-teacher relationship. The only other flaw in the script is that it's a message film, and sometimes the message hits you with all the subtlety of an Alka-Seltzer headache. But in fairness, the resolutions aren't as pat as some of the other show-me-the-world teacher films. Watson doesn't convert all of them, and some women choose to be the housewives they thought they wanted to be at the start of the film. And isn't that what liberation is all about? Choice?
Newell has a knack for filming scenes so that they enhance to feeling or message. An exterior shot of the ivy towers of Wellesley have a misty, ethereal quality, as if to reinforce that this was one aspect of the American dream. Camera angles capture similar moods, and the picture quality ranges from sharp-as-nails to slightly blurred, depending upon the situation. The quality, in other words, is exceptional, and in 1.85:1 amorphic widescreen, mastered in high definition, we get a great glimpse of the period, down to meticulous details like signage and appliances.
A commercial following the Elton John video on this DVD proclaims that the soundtrack has 50 classics from the period, performed by people like Tori Amos (who makes a cameo appearance at a school dance), Celine Dion, Macy Gray, and John. The Dolby Digital 5.1 does a fine job of delivering the music, and there are plenty of rear-speaker sound effects that lend to the ambience. There's also French audio in Dolby Surround, with subtitles in English and French.
There's no full-length commentary, only an "Art Forum" feature, a period piece on "What Women Wanted: 1953," a music video with Elton John ("The Heart of Every Girl"), a few features and filmographies. Forget what women wanted. What viewers will want is more of the fantastic vintage footage that Newell rolled during the end-credits. This stuff was fabulous, and really reinforced the message of the film in such a way that you wished there was an entire extra devoted to nothing but advertising and images of the fifties showing gender roles and lifestyles. As is, the Art Forum feature is the only disappointment. With the title, you might expect a mini-lecture on some of the slides that were shown during the film. Instead, you get the cast talking about art, which is akin to eavesdropping on strollers at an outdoor art fair talking about their likes and dislikes. The only interesting comments come from Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Watson's landlady and the etiquette and elocution teacher at Wellesley. Harden, of course, starred in "Pollack," and is able to talk intelligently about the impact that Pollack and others had on the art world. But the best of the extras are two other short features. "College Then and Now" combines vintage footage with some interesting pop-up facts and talking heads commentaries ("I wanted to be a teacher," Roberts says). But it also provides some behind-the-scenes filming and outtakes. In 1953, 7 percent of the law degrees were awarded to women; now, 47 percent of the degrees go to women. In 1953, 85 percent of college freshmen said they were virgins; now, 22 percent say they're virgins. "What Women Wanted" features even more vintage clips in an entertaining but brief feature that's every bit as entertaining as the college years comparison.
"Mona Lisa Smile" isn't a "Dead Poets Society," but it deserves better than the reviews it's been getting. The acting is solid, the direction and editing is decent (even if some scenes illustrate the same points over and over), and the soundtrack and cinematography are quite good. But the script's the thing, and this one tries too hard to drive home a point that most of us would get without the hammering. Roberts has acted in some very good films and some not-so-good ones. If you enjoyed her in "Erin Brockovich," "Mystic Pizza," and "Notting Hill," you'll like her in "Mona Lisa Smile." It may not be a "Dead Poets Society," but it's also no "Hook," "Dying Young," or "Runaway Bride."