A Rheum of Ones Own

The creaky displeasures of Mona Lisa Smile and Calendar Girls

Mona Lisa Smile, in which Julia Roberts (whose company produced the film) plays a freethinking, Berkeley-educated art-history professor at the all-girls Wellesley College in 1953, is being promoted as a chick-flick spin on Dead Poets Society, in which Robin Williams played a freethinking English teacher at an all-boys New England prep school in 1959. Similarly, Calendar Girls, in which the great Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and a host of equally estimable British actresses bare their breasts for charity, is being heralded as a female version of The Full Monty, in which a gaggle of unemployed Sheffield steelworkers dropped their pants for lack of anything better to do. Taken together, the films represent the most depressingly accurate cases of truth in advertising to be found at the movies this holiday.

Mona Lisa Smile comes to us courtesy of the writing team of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, previously responsible for such hallmarks of female empowerment as Superman IV, Mercury Rising and the Planet of the Apes remake, and they've scripted this ostensibly more serious, character-driven picture according to the same high-concept principles. That is, it's a gimmick movie in which Roberts' Katherine Watson tries, mostly in vain, to free her students' minds from the cobwebbed conservatism advocated by the college authorities, who wish that Watson would just stick to the curriculum. There may be an ounce of feminist truth in that scenario, but what makes the movie seem crass is its refusal to present (or even to see) more than one side of any given issue. In the logic of Konner and Rosenthal, here abetted by director Mike Newell, you're either a Jackson Pollock or a Norman Rockwell—which is to say, in the world of Mona Lisa Smile, either a vanguard proto-hippie type who has no use for the world of men and marriage, or a bright young thing doomed to surrender herself to unhappy housewifery. Which is, to put it mildly, the kind of offensive idiocy that gives male writers the reputation for being insensitive to women's issues.

Throughout, it's clear that Watson, played by Roberts with lots of on-cue foot stamping and pantomime indignation, has only good, soul-liberating advice for her pupils and that, if they'd only listen to her, they'd be better off. (She doesn't actually speak the words "Seize the day," though we can hear them plain as day.) The girls themselves, played by a who's who of up-and-comer starlets, have little more dimension than the ones who faded into the background of Gus Van Sant's Elephant; they're merely cogs in the movie's not-so-well-oiled machine. There's the conniving, self-centered priss (Kirsten Dunst); the slightly more well-adjusted priss (Julia Stiles); the loose-limbed Jewish provocateur (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who comes to pattern herself on Watson; and, of course, the requisite homely girl (newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin) who makes the others feel better about themselves. The faculty, conceived in similarly transparent terms, includes a spinster teacher of elocution (Marcia Gay Harden) and a resident lesbian nurse (Juliet Stevenson, channeling Katharine Hepburn). Fortunately, most of these actresses are capable of spinning gold out of straw, and a few—like Stiles, Gyllenhaal and Harden—are even better than that. They accomplish the movie's real act of liberation, freeing themselves from the shackles of Konner and Rosenthal's script.

There are also some fine perform-ances in Calendar Girls, but they can do only so much to elevate a movie in which the central premise is: Naked middle-aged women equals funny. (And with Diane Keaton currently on ample display in Something's Gotta Give, 'tis really the season for such fare.) It's not that Calendar Girls is corrupt in concept—or even as corrupt as Something's Gotta Give. It is, in fact, based on the true story of the Women's Institute group of Rylstone, North Yorkshire, which, in 1999, published its annual fund-raising calendar with one minor alteration. That year, the members of the group appearing in the calendar did so in the altogether, generating some £600,000 for leukemia charities in the process and earning themselves worldwide celebrity. (The women even came to LA and appeared on The Tonight Show—an episode faithfully re-created here, though by that point it feels like we're getting the movie and its sequel both in one interminable sitting.) But the real-life calendar girls were actual human beings, and here they're merely comic patsies, lacking the distinctive personalities that made the men of The Full Monty so endearing, their final act of revelation so peculiarly dignified.

Mona Lisa Smile was directed by Mike Newell and written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal.

Now playing countywide. Calendar Girls was directed by Nigel Cole and written by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth. Now playing at select theaters.

 
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