Thursday, Dec. 18, 2003

(Worst) Mona Lisa Smile

To judge from this appallingly reductive weepie, Wellesley College in 1953 was more close-minded than Selma, Alabama. The posh young ladies looked into their futures and saw not Marie Curie or Clare Boothe Luce or Ivy Baker Priest — she was Eisenhower's Secretary of the Treasury at the time — but Generic Wife of Prominent Gent. This canard is a libel on the millions of postwar middle-class working women (including my mother and her sisters, all teachers) who had some aspirations to do good and do well. The movie, with Julia Roberts as a progressive teacher corralling her own Dead Artists Society, also lies about the place in '50s American culture of Jackson Pollock, whose work shocks some students and faculty when Roberts shows it to them. (Pollock had been an American avant-icon at least since 1949, when LIFE magazine ran a famous story with the headline "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?") But Mona Lisa Smile is awful for so many reasons beyond its historical irresponsibility. It reduces all supporting characters to stereotypes (this one a society bitch, that one a neurotic Jew, the third a self-deluding nerd). And, like Erin Brockovich, it tries to establish the Julia Roberts character as a saint by painting everyone else as a knave, a fool or a weakling. That's lazy moviemaking that shows a contempt for its audience's intelligence. Other than that, I liked it.