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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
"Go home, fix your face, and wait for your husband."
DVD ReviewThere's nothing wrong with being old fashioned, but there's a distinction to be made between classic and fuddy duddy; unfortunately a lot of that seems lost on the folks who made Mona Lisa Smile, an earnest film that can't get past its sprightly good intentions. It's a story we've seen in various forms—it's The Teacher Who Changed My Life, and ranges from Goodbye, Mr. Chips to To Sir, With Love to Dead Poets Society, the last of which this movie seems to mistake for Citizen Kane. It's a gee-whiz and well-intentioned movie, and it's nice to see a female spin on this old chestnut, but this is really warmed-over stuff, not any sort of feminist reinvention of a tired old yarn.
It's the start of the 1953-54 academic year at Wellesley, that most proper of the Seven Sisters, and there's a new girl in town. (It was the 1950s; it was okay back then to call them girls.) Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, émigré from that den of iniquity, California, to school the Wellesley women in the history of art. And wouldn't you know it? Everybody learns a li'l something about life. The coeds can memorize facts with the best of them, but they can't think on their own; and that's not just in the classroom. These were the best and the brightest, and for most of them, the highest aspiration was to snare a Harvard man and start producing the Wellesley girls and Harvard boys of the next generation. (This is also not too far removed from the Wellesley of Professor Nabokov, and just a few years earlier, these very girls could have served as the inspiration for the light of his life, the fire of his loins, his sin, his soul, his Lolita.)
So indeed, there's something genuinely empowering in Katherine's message to her students. Why shouldn't Joan (Julia Stiles) go to Yale Law School instead of setting up home in Philadelphia because her affianced is going to Wharton? Why should Betty (Kirsten Dunst) be excused from weeks' worth of work, just because she got married? Katherine offers another path—she's in her thirties and unmarried, though legend is she had a notorious affair with William Holden—and even if the girls travel the well-worn route, they're that much the wiser for having known Ms. Watson.
Or something. It doesn't really come off that way, because director Mike Newell doesn't have much of a feel for the time or place—it's clearly a movie not directed by an American, but it makes for a great soundtrack, with lush cuts of songs like How High the Moon? Most of the movie plays out sort of like Far From Heaven without the knowing, ironic distance, and that's no compliment. Dunst as Betty is a bitch and a half, happily sneering at and passing judgment on anybody who doesn't do things exactly the way she does—she even narrates some of the movie, clanging away at her typewriter and publishing a snarky column in the school paper, making her sort of an ür-Carrie Bradshaw. Roberts is adequate and willowy in the lead role; but she doesn't seem of the period, and the script lets her down. (She dumps one boyfriend, and we see her through the relationship with another, but why she's with either of these guys, or why things don't work out, remains a mystery.) The highest marks go to Marcia Gay Harden, who, as another member of the Wellesley faculty, embodies both the propriety and the anxiety of the time—only after a couple of Manhattans will she let her true feelings come tumbling out. It's especially odd to see her in a movie in which other characters are deeply moved by the new paintings by Jackson Pollock, and it's a reminder of Harden's range—she's entirely convincing here, just as she was at the other end of the '50s spectrum, as Lee Krasner.
Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: The movie is lushly shot, to the point of looking at times like a New England tourist brochure—the turning leaves look just so, as do the piles of Idaho flakes passing as snow. The transfer is clean, with no problems in palette, resolution or contrast.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 track is a bit mercurial—the music and scoring sound lush, but in some of the dialogue scenes, when the actresses move to hushed tones (there are many moments like this), you may find yourself going back to put on the subtitles, because it can sound more than a bit murky.
Audio Transfer Grade: C
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring 13 Going On 30, Spider-Man 2, Big Fish, Something's Gotta Give
Filmographies are for the principal cast members, Newell, and screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal; there's also a video for The Heart of Every Girl, a forgettable Elton John song that plays over the film's closing credits.
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsYou won't need to know this one for the exam, and there are some small pleasures in this movie, despite it being sort of a dumbed-down Paper Chase in a dress.
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