"See past the paint"

I heard Mona Lisa Smile described as the "female" Dead Poets Society. Well, in a way that's right - we have a period, 1950s, school piece where students are affected by a non-traditional teacher. There's a few similarities in plot, but where the Robin Williams vehicle resorts to sentimentality and easy answers, Mona Lisa Smile - while to a lesser extent a Julia Roberts vehicle - allows some genuine human complication to enter the picture.

Much of the film takes place in Art Appreciation 101, led by prestigious Wellseley's newest professor, Katherine Watson. She comes from lesser academic roots, and when the students arrive overprepared and show her up, that's when she reaches beyond the syllabus and presents ideas challenging the nature of art, and how the students see themselves.

The major theme is one of feminism - however variably people define it. The interesting thing is that, by using art as the metaphor, we are left with the idea that how to be a feminist is a matter, ultimately, of taste - not to take anybody's ideas of women's roles at face value, but to make one's own decisions.

We have a number of student archetypes, who deal with Professor Watson's influence in different ways. Some predictable things happen, some not-so-predictable things do as well. While the plot teeters precariously close to Dead Poets, the brushstrokes never are that black and white.

Now, speaking of art, the door has been left wide open to question this film's artistic merit. How allegorical can you be without being trite? A film about ideas is inherently more interesting than one devoid of thought, but is the presentation of the idea more important than the idea itself? If art is relative to the viewer, then why bother asking all these questions?

The presentation of ideas is very straightforward. There's little need to think to "get" the film. It's not inherently "bad" to be so accessible, but there's little in the offing, artistically, in that sense.

Robert isn't bad as Watson. I have a tendency, and I'm not alone, to be wary of her films. It's not so much an indication of her talent, but that her star status and perceived drawing power have resulted in some poor casting choices. While not deep, this role fits remarkably well. It's no Erin Brockovich, but if there were more films like this before her Oscar, perhaps there'd be less discussion on the topic.

The triumvirate of young starlets - Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal - plus the largely unknown Ginnifer Goodwin - are excellent as their largely archetypal characters. I would have liked to have seen more of them, but the nature of the material probably rules that out. It would be interesting to see these characters in a series format, though you'd never tie down all these actors to a television contract in a million years.

Sure, the end scene is a little saccharine, and maybe there's not a lot new to see here. But still, Mona Lisa Smile beats Dead Poets Society hands down, and a lot of people liked that film.

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