Friday, April 25, 2014

Mona Lisa Smile


We continue to lay down footage for my new reality television show, American Idyll where ten little girls between the ages of four and eight are competing to become the Shirley Temple of the new millennium. Most of the sequences we've been working on have been filmed in my sumptuous home, Chateau Maine, where the girls, along with a bevy of rather frightening stage mothers, have been in residence. We've had our first casualties of the process over the last week, little Zelda, the ocarina player, just couldn't hit the high notes on the end of Glitter and be Gay, our tribute to Liberace, and LaTwanza fell during the ladder tap routine for Stairway to Paradise, badly twisting her ankle. LaTwanza's mother is threatening suit, claiming fourteen feet was much too high above the stage, but Fajer and Hellmann, my lawyers, had everyone sign air tight damage waivers prior to their appearance so it isn't going to go anywhere. 

Yesterday, we loaded everyone up in a large pink greyhound bus and drove them to Las Vegas. If the little darlings are going to be true divas of stage and screen, they will need to dominate the stage like a true Vegas headliner. Joseph, my manager, tried to get us the Mirage now that Siegfried and Roy are on tiger hiatus, but it wasn't available. Neither were many of the other venues I suggested. We've had to settle for the fountains in front of the Bellagio where I'm having my dear friend, Esther Williams, stage a lovely little water ballet for them, based on the torpedoing of the Lusitania. Celine Dion, who's currently appearing just down the street agreed to make a special appearance, rising from the waters on the submarine's periscope singing My Heart Will Go On but strained her neck during the technical rehearsal. We've had to replace her with Lanie Kazan. 

With all these preparations underway, I've scarcely had time to think, but Normy insisted I take a few quiet hours so I put the DVD of Mona Lisa Smile into my laptop, thinking that Julia Robert's plucky turn as an inspiration to a generation of adolescent girls might inspire me in my current venture. I missed this film in its theatrical run, being rather averse to Julia in dramatic roles, but was somewhat cheered when I saw that she was being supported by a stellar cast of young up and comers and old pros. 

In Mona Lisa Smile, Julia and her hair extensions play Katherine Watson, a relatively liberated thirtyish art history graduate student who is hired by Wellesley college to teach one of those big intro survey courses. The time is 1953; the silent generation females are traipsing around in lollipop dresses and white gloves and la creme de la creme are attending seven sisters colleges where they learn deportment and the importance of a good table setting along with their English and history. Their job in life is to get married to the right husbands and support them in their Wall Street or legal careers. Katherine has other ideas, she wants her young charges to actually think and develop as people rather than regurgitate factoids (which they can all do on the first day, having digested the syllabus over the summer). She runs into trouble from the alumni (Donna Mitchell), the president (Marian Seldes) and her housemate with the closet alcohol problem (Marcia Gay Harden). There's also the token lesbian nurse (Juliet Stevenson) who is publically humiliated and kicked out for daring to instruct her perfect young ladies in contraception. In true Dead Poets Society form, her young charges, however, begin to blossom and break forth from their social strait jackets, even the frosty Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) who sees herself as self appointed guardian of Wellesley and cultural tradition at the ripe old age of twenty-one. Her more adventurous classmates include Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal. In a subplot, Katherine is romanced by fellow teacher Dominic West; they look great together but have pretty much zip chemistry. 

The film isn't bad. Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill) has a talent for handling large ensemble casts and getting reasonable and consistent performances out of them. He keeps the balance right and doesn't let the movie really turn into a Julia Roberts' picture, even though she has the lead role. Miss Roberts is adequate, but uninspired. There's nothing to differentiate Katherine from a half dozen other plucky heroines she's played over the last couple of decades; the setting and period also prevent her from cutting loose with any of the sassy comic moments that are her real trademark and make her so enjoyable in her romantic comedies. Newell also has a good feel for recreation of the terrible repression of women that happened in the US in the twenty years between World War II and the women's liberation movement. The credits sequence, featuring period media images of the female ideal are screamingly funny and horrifyingly grotesque at the same time, and he subtly plays up this Jekyll/Hyde duality throughout the film. 

He's helped by a solid supporting cast. Juliet Stevenson, Marian Seldes and Marcia Gay Harden give great performances as the other faculty members with whom Katherine interacts. Ms. Harden, in particular, is memorable in a wedding scene when she has a little too much to drink and spills some of the secrets under her placid exterior. The young actresses are also well cast and all give off the assured patrician demeanor required by their roles. Ms. Dunst has the showiest part, and therefore remains more in the mind than the others but I liked Maggie Gyllenhaal's more understated portrayal better. 

The script, by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal is pretty derivative stuff and quite safe. There are a few little twists that suggest that an original draft was more unconventional and thought provoking and that studio suits dumbed it down so as not to offend middle America, where idolizing of a fifties that never really were seems to be a new national pastime. A bit more deconstructing of Leave it to Beaver myths would have been in order. 

The DVD, given the films somewhat lackluster performance at the box office, is a bare bones affair. Just the film (decent picture and sound transfer), the usual bios, and a promotional Elton John music video of 'The Heart of Every Girl', a title song obviously included as Oscar bait. 

Hoop rolling. Carcass painting. Crated Jackson Pollock. Wedding dancing. Anachronistic diaphragm case. Syllabus deviations. Yale law school application. Gratuitous Doris Day records. Bad marriage decisions. Shirtless Dominic West. No shirtless Julia Roberts. Gratuitous bicycle farewell. 

No comments:

Post a Comment