"Welcome to the land of the perpetually depressed"
Johnny Galecki speaks these words near the start of Playing Mona Lisa. They mark an introduction to a period of Claire Goldstein's life where she sets aside much of what she has going for her, because her boyfriend has broken up with her. She creates failure in her life as a budding classical pianist in favor of partying with her friends, notably Sabrina (Brooke Langton, of Kiss The Bride), who is a much more cutting edge personality.
People give Claire some really bad relationship advice as she tries to get some direction during this recovery period. Sabrina tells her to "play Mona Lisa" - be the enigmatic, not quite reachable person, to intrigue the men with mystery. Claire's mother gives her the equally helpful "tell them you've been with women" line. Claire must be very impressionable, for she pursues both strategies for some time even as they are clearly failing.
There's a fair number of side plots going on. Sabrina has two boyfriends, one for love and one for sex. Claire's sister is getting married. The music teacher pines for an old lover. At one point, an earthquake evicts Claire and she has to move home with her parents, who are going through their own issues. And then there's Johnny Galecki, unable to make a move with the professional cheerleader he's always playing Scrabble with.
Alicia Witt is Claire. I grow more fond of her role choices, the more I see of her. This was a bit of a natural, as she is an accomplished pianist herself and we don't have to deal with all the painful cuts from a pair of playing hands to a medium front shot on someone doing a Stevie Wonder impersonation that nearly all piano movies feature. Witt is pitch perfect in her performance, both earnest and delicate.
I like the casting of Harvey Fierstein as Claire's gay music teacher. Or is it, Claire's music teacher, who happens to be gay? I've heard gay actors lament that many gay roles end up going to straight folk. I don't have a strong opinion there, but it seems silly to not consider a gay person for a gay role. But my point here is that Fierstein not only comes off as gay, but is well known for it, perhaps even a gay icon. So, it works for me somehow, whereas seeing him come on to Brooke Shields wouldn't. Typecasting sucks for an actor, but sometimes there's a reason for it. I don't know that anyone will think this was worth this much space, but it's the sort of thing that passes through my head.
The movie is an excellent exploration of the human condition. You see, Claire is scared to take responsibility for her life. She had high hopes for a life with her boyfriend, but had put the relationship above her own dreams. Her teacher says at one point, "When you dim your light so someone else can shine, the whole world gets darker". The film never hits us over the head with this. Claire's life unfolds naturally in front of us, and only at the end are the pieces allowed to come together in a pleasing way.
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