Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I wouldn’t call Mona Lisa Smile unpleasant or unsuccessful, but there is something easy and obvious nowadays in showing how a free-spirited teacher could liberate the mind of her students in a 1950s college for young women. We’ve seen this story many times before, and even acknowledging that this was a real social environment doesn’t do much to excuse a film that runs on autopilot most of the time. But, of course, Mona Lisa Smile is more interesting as a showcase for actresses than for anything else. Beyond Julia Roberts (who frankly doesn’t do much in the lead role), the cast includes half a dozen other actresses would either were, or would become recognizable names. Seeing them interact (often in spectacularly bitchy fashion) is its own brand of fun. The conventional nature of the film shouldn’t take away from the comfort offered by a film in which enemies turn friendly, contemporary values are upheld, every actress gets a small moment to shine and we get to spend some time in a past which, for all of its oppressiveness, was simple and understandable. All of this may sound demeaning without meaning to—even as far away from the target audience of the film that I can be, I still smiled and nodded at the film’s broad strokes. The final tiny twists mean that Mona Lisa Smile isn’t quite as obvious as it could have been, but let’s face it: this is a kind of film made for people who like that kind of film and it’s unlikely to meet more than a muted response from anyone who’s not already looking forward to what it has to offer.

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