Film, like fashion, follows the whims of popular culture. One of the trends this month's fashion magazines are celebrating is that "recycled" is the new new. Just as the colors pink (shocking or otherwise), gray and brown have all served time as the new black, buddy films, war dramas and hormonal teen comedies become the manufactured rage of Hollywood: the genre du jour.
As a film genre, teacher movies don't command the attention of westerns, screwballs or even slasher films. Yet every few years the familiar plot is rehashed. Think of the genre's star-making turns: Sandy Dennis in Up the Down Staircase, Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Idealistic new teacher gets a rocky start but eventually finds her own voice in the classroom, where her teaching inspires students to embrace their own individuality and intellectual curiosity.
This brings us to Julia Roberts' Mona Lisa Smile, a shallow but beautifully shot movie produced by Roberts' new company, Red Om Films. Unlike the classics of the teacher genre, though, Mona Lisa Smile doesn't serve to showcase a lead actor. Instead it allows 1950s-era sweater sets and crinoline petticoats to play the starring role.
Don't look to this film to delve into the complicated, erotic nature of student-teacher relationships, or to allow any of its lipsticked ingenues to bite into the meat of a scene. Instead, pay attention to Roberts' clothing, for the way her loose-fitting peasant blouses and her jaunty Bohemian beret are pressed into service as character development.
In Smile, Roberts dons that beret to play Katherine Watson, the noble, free-spirited teacher role. Hired to teach art history at an exclusive women's college, she's dismayed to find that her intelligent students--played with spunk by Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal--are still comfortably cosseted within society's girdles. Wellesley College girls are encouraged to find husbands and master rules of etiquette, rather than to become more intellectually aware.
However, thanks to Watson's unconventional teaching style--which seems to mostly involve field trips to New York art galleries--she encourages her students to attend law school as well as get married, to open their eyes and see. Her attempts, however, seem passionless.
Along the way, Watson liberates herself from her gray-haired, long-distance lover only to take up with the campus rake, the Italian professor who has a nasty habit of sleeping with students. Finally, after encouraging her students to appreciate Picasso and Pollock, Watson leaves academe behind to broaden her own horizons--no doubt clad in a pair of comfortable shoes.
As with other recent films aimed at the chick-flick audience, the movie's greatest success lies in its attention to surface gloss, to getting the details just right, all those pin-curled bobs, the pearls and sweaters and wool plaid skirts and sherbet-colored tulle formals. But never in this Glamour-sanctioned fashion parade does director Mike Newell allow us to peer behind these Eisenhower facades to find the human beings underneath (as Todd Haynes did so masterfully in Far from Heaven).
This lack of storytelling ambition serves to underscore what is so often wrong with big-budget genre films. The movie seems uninterested in digging beyond the surface, in capturing any of the contradictions in the cultural collisions of women's lives, in a particular era after World War II and before Women's Lib.
Instead, Newell and Roberts have made a safe movie of coifed artifice, set at the very time that gender wars were brewing, thanks to the working women who had been summarily marched back to peacetime kitchens.
The real '50s Barbies grew up, got jobs, read Simone de Beauvoir and eventually unlaced the girdles. But the women in Mona Lisa Smile stay tucked away, trapped in plastic boxes. Unlike all those other untrendy teachers of the genre--like those played by Dennis, Poitier and Williams--Julia Roberts' beatnik art instructor doesn't have the vision to set her students free.
Opens Friday, Dec. 19.
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