Thursday, January 01, 2004

For myself, I didn't feel anything special when NYE (New Year's Eve for the uninitiated) rolled around, just that it was the last day for me to use up my movie vouchers (which, by the way, is the main reason why I've watched so many movies in December - eight in one month). I ended up watching Mona Lisa Smile, a movie said to be based on Hillary Clinton's memoirs of her time at Wellesley in the '50s.

A brief movie review, if you will. Julia Roberts stars as Katharine Watson, a UC-Berkeley graduate who goes on to teach Art History and Appreciation at Wellesley, the nation's top college for girls. She dreams of being able to make a difference, of changing these girls' lives, only to discover that the students, faculty and alumni alike consider Wellesley nothing more than a pit-stop before they go on to get married and devote their lives to their husbands, in other words, Wellesley is a finishing school for exceedingly bright girls, nothing more, nothing less.

There're a couple of students of Katharine's that the movie focuses on - Betty (Kirsten Dunst), a spoilt, bratty, conservative uptight girl who's the editor of the school newspaper and the daughter of the head of the alumni association, Joan (Julia Stiles), Betty's best friend, a smart, sensible, responsible peacemaker, Gisele (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the sexy, liberal, free-sex student who admires Katharine and Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin), an insecure wallflower, tormented by Betty.

This movie is entirely too predictable. We all know what's going to happen. The bright, young, new teacher comes in, wanting to make a difference, but is daunted by her students. Then, she turns to more unorthodox methods of teaching and the students respond brilliantly. There's always one student who seems to hate her, and another who loves her. As the year comes to an end, the one lone student who hates her has an abrupt turnaround, becomes one of her most ardent supporters. Lives are changed. The end. A happy ending, no doubt, but ultimately, a dull and uninteresting plot. It glosses over far too much in an attempt to get to that happy ending.

The movie does has its bright moments, such as when Katharine asks the class to discuss what Art is, and teaches them about Van Gogh - paint-by-numbers, and Julia Roberts and Maggie Gyllenhaal do turn in good performances, with MG being especially good, I felt, as the sexy, caring free spirit. After hearing about her great performance in Secretary, and now this, I do hope we'll be seeing more of her work soon.

One scene in the movie that got me - not in an emotional way, just in an intellectual way - was when Katharine goes to tell Joan that she can study to be a lawyer and still be a dutiful wife. Katharine tells Joan that ultimately, Joan will regret giving up her position at Yale Law School in order to be a housewife. Joan responds that being a housewife wasn't just her husband's choice; it was both of their decisions and that Katharine has to understand that women can and do choose to raise families instead of pursuing their careers, and that this is a carefully considered decision, not the choice of someone meekly accepting her place in life. This got me because I'm independent, and scoff at the nation of having someone take care of me, buying everything I need and all that. I had been having great difficulty with the movie and its notion of a woman's place in that era, though I do grant that it was very different than what it is today, and up until that point, I just kept thinking - why would any female think, after having gone through so many rounds of education, that being a housewife was the ultimate aspiration in life? So now, I understand a little better that being a housewife isn't worse than my being a professional. It's simply a different path... though I still think it's a far simpler, less empowering one than the path I've chosen to take.

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