Although it hardly constitutes a major genre, the academic picture, the movie about college students and professors, remains a moderately popular form for filmmakers and film audiences. When college flicks concentrate on students, they tend to move into anarchic comedy or slaughterhouse horror, both entirely suitable for the young demographic Hollywood loves so dearly. When they deal with faculty, whether seriously or comically, however, they like to show some version of Jerry Lewis's nutty professor (a variant on the grand archetype of the mad scientist). They concentrate on the necessary eccentricity of a superior intellect, thus gratifying the essentially anti-intellectual instincts of American popular culture.
One of the highly praised movies of a couple of years ago, A Beautiful Mind, showed at least a glimpse of academic research and the work of a powerful intellect. At the same time, of course, it exploited in its own way the stereotype of the insane genius. The two most recent films to depict college professors, The Life of David Gale and The Human Stain, both featured a decidedly unorthodox and ultimately unhinged professor, certainly untrustworthy as a mentor of the young. Even the latest college flick, which breaks new ground in adding a female to the learned ranks of Hollywood faculty, depends on the protagonist's characterization as a quixotic nonconformist, out of step with prevailing opinion and established order.
In Mona Lisa Smile Julia Roberts plays a new young instructor who comes from California to Massachusetts in 1953 to teach art history to the wealthy, privileged young ladies of Wellesley College. The time and place mean a great deal in the atmosphere of the film, which raises a number of historical issues, most of them dealing with conformity and repression.
Hinting coyly at the climate of anti-Communist hysteria, some characters in the movie use the loaded term subversion as a condemnation. Entirely concerned with the prospect of marriage to the right young man from the right family and the right school, most of the women regard their education simply as a polishing process, providing a patina of gentility and culture for their adult social life.
Roberts, something of an anomaly at Wellesley because she didn't attend one of the Seven Sisters colleges or do graduate work at a prestigious Eastern university, finds her students, who all look disquietingly alike, simultaneously arrogant and docile. They smugly resist her new ideas and are fixed on the limited goals of upper-class domesticity. She discovers that her students already have the textbook memorized by the first day of classes (in real life, too few students, as any instructor will testify, even open the books), but also that they will not examine its concepts or analyze works of art outside the mainstream of received opinion. The faculty, typically, consists of hidebound fuddy-duddies who frown on her interest in contemporary painting and alternative approaches to education.
Once the movie introduces the chief character and the situation, it distributes its attention on a number of issues, none of which really emerges clearly or provides much strength or focus to the narrative. The script chiefly concerns itself with the repressive gentility of Wellesley, where the school nurse loses her job because she provides a diaphragm to a sexually active student, a coalition of conservative faculty and alumni oversee curriculum, and one of Julia Roberts's acquaintances (Marcia Gay Harden) teaches a horrible course in etiquette.
Roberts herself subversively encourages her students to pursue careers beyond college rather than settling for the dubious comfort of bourgeois security and lifelong inertia, which shocks her students, earns her the distrust of her colleagues, and threatens her position at the college.
While turning the story into something like a feminist tract, the filmmakers only touch on some other aspects of the 1950s beyond the usual clichés about sheeplike conformity --- as if it were any different today --- and cultural stagnation. At least when Roberts shows her class a terrific Jackson Pollock painting, the film hints at the spontaneity of the time, neglected by so many commentators, when action painting, progressive jazz, Beat writing, and even the exuberance of automotive styling expressed an entirely different aspect of the decade. In general, however, Mona Lisa Smile aims only at easy targets and familiar issues, settling for the most obvious and predictable conclusions.
One rather unusual element in the film, which many other movies about the time neglect, is the lingering presence of World War II, still very much a recent event, haunting the memories of the characters. Women speak of their lovers or fiancés dying in the war, and a professor who romances Roberts builds his mystique around the fiction that he was wounded in the Italian campaign. Although the movie looks most attractive in a tweedy New England way and Julia Roberts seems quite sincere, the memory of the war provides perhaps the only genuinely original and potentially compelling concept in Mona Lisa Smile.
Mona Lisa Smile, starring Julia Roberts,
Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson,
Marcia Gay Harden, John Slattery; written by Lawrence Konner and Mark
Rosenthal; directed by Mike Newell. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews
Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.