The Finely Drawn Women Of Mona Lisa Smile

The holiday countdown has begun. The potpourri of new movies lining up to assault your senses and your pocketbook from now until New Year’s is like the good stuff–bad stuff you find every year crammed in your Christmas stocking: for every prayed-for diamond, a lot of nasty cashew nuts. I’m thankful for the rare treasures like Cold Mountain , House of Sand and Fog , The Girl with a Pearl Earring and Mona Lisa Smile , and I’d like to kill Santa for dumping garbage like Big Fish , The Haunted Mansion and The Cat in the Hat that was clearly meant for the local landfill, not the local mall.

Julia Roberts makes up for old sins with Mona Lisa Smile , an intelligent, character-driven ensemble piece with a busy and attractive cast examining tradition and change in the groves of academe in the 1950′s. In the new film by Mike Newell, the star subverts some of the twittering, gummy-bear smiles that pass for her acting style in order to flesh out the internal conflicts of Professor Katherine Watson, a brainy California bohemian from Berkeley who transfers to the art-history department at tailored, prestigious and anal-retentive Wellesley like a collapsible bumper car headed for a concrete wall. Before she even settles into the quaint off-campus apartment of the spinsterish professor of speech, elocution and poise (Marcia Gay Harden), she finds herself woefully out of her league, domestically and in the classroom. Like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society , she arrives in the archaic Halls of Ivy unwanted, unprepared and outclassed by a group of snobbish undergraduate students who are more sophisticated and well-read than she is, and poisonously anxious to prove it. They are in for a surprise from a teacher who gives as good as she gets. Gripped in the rituals of cold and repressive values, they have never been exposed to an instructor whose progressive thinking can open their minds to new ideas without a textbook to tell them what to think. Wellesley girls in 1953 were put on the same career path as their mothers, taught to plan futures as wives and homemakers, and forced to face stern opposition from the educational establishment when they chose to indulge their imaginations or stretch their minds.

As an enemy of conformity in any size or shape, Ms. Roberts is shocked by what she discovers among both the students and the faculty, as a number of finely drawn women come to life. Just as she arrives for the fall semester, another teacher in her lodging house (the fine British actress Juliet Stevenson) is being dismissed for being a lesbian and dispensing contraceptives to her students. To the crusty dean of women (Marian Seldes), liberal feminist ideas must be suppressed before they encourage base instincts. In this rigid environment, Julia Roberts must work to erase all labels even at the risk of being labeled herself as a “subversive.”

Among the inner circle of art students most profoundly influenced by Ms. Roberts’ promotion of spontaneity and idealism there is Kirsten Dunst, the class bitch whose mother is president of the alumni association; Maggie Gyllenhaal as a student trapped in an unrequited affair with a dashing faculty member (Dominic West) who is also infatuated with Ms. Roberts at the same time; and Julia Stiles as the girl with the brightest future of all, but torn between marriage and law school. Before it ends, Professor Watson profoundly changes them all, pointing out the difference between a finishing school and a college, convincing them that there’s more to life than girdles and the perfect meat loaf. I confess I’m a sucker for movies about college students at the crossroads of their lives, and teachers facing daunting odds who stick around to make a difference in the field of education. Mona Lisa Smile is one of the better ones-tackling issues without sentimentality, while shaping a sharply observed, stylishly enacted mosaic of the period. The clothes are right, the music (Doris Day, the Mills Brothers and “Santa Baby”) is wonderfully evocative of the time and place, and the actresses have never looked better. What a treat, after all the psychotic contemporary freaks they’ve played, to see Ms. Dunst, Ms. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Stiles in cashmere sweaters and pearls-and if I had my way, women would all wear their hair in pageboys.

Like Take Care of My Little Girl , which dissected the superficiality of campus sororities, and The Group , which hacked away the pretenses of Mary McCarthy’s Vassar in the 1930′s, Mona Lisa Smile -appropriately named for the mysterious double entendre behind the expression on every college girl’s face-is a museum piece. But if you’re in the right mood, it’s a deeply gratifying one.

Home Wrecker

Gripping, intense and profoundly unsettling, House of Sand and Fog deserves a prime spot at the top of everybody’s must-see list. The best-seller by Andre Dubus III has been brought to the screen with authority and reverence by the Russian-born Canadian director Vadim Perelman, who is making an astonishing feature-film debut. The film has none of the flash and self-consciousness that can usually be expected from the makers of commercials and music videos. Instead, it shimmers with a passion for understatement that only enhances its riveting theme of the desperation for dignity that drives nice people to madness when the American Dream goes haywire.

Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley give provocative, deeply affecting performances as two people from opposite sides of the globe whose lives become dangerously and inextricably intertwined in a battle for ownership of a small house in Northern California that destroys them both. She is Kathy Nicolo, a recovering drug addict deserted by her husband and left alone in a house near the beach that has grown derelict through neglect and apathy. Suddenly, the house is confiscated and repossessed for nonpayment of back taxes, Kathy is escorted from the premises, and everything is sold at auction. Devastated, she discovers her eviction was a bureaucratic error over a tax she never owed in the first place. Naturally, she wants her house back, but it’s too late: The county has already sold it to Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), a once-respected colonel in the Iranian Air Force who immigrated to America when his country was seized by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Now the new owner sees the house as a chance to turn the last of his savings into an investment and do what all Americans do-make a profit. The modest little California bungalow becomes a bone of contention in a tug of war between two people fighting for their dignity. The woman-homeless, broke, unemployed, reduced to living in her automobile-just wants her home back. The Iranian-proud, anxious to make a better life for his wife and son in a new country, and implacable-wants to live the American way and sell the house for four times what he paid. As the war escalates, Kathy finds a dangerous ally in a handsome, unhappily married cop (exciting newcomer Ron Eldard) with a short temper who decides to use his own “persuasive” strong-arm technique on the foreigner. But the colonel did not rise to military power under the Shah of Iran without learning a few “persuasive” tactics of his own.

What begins as a conflict about real estate builds into a collision of cultures that paves the way, brick by brick, to an inevitable tragedy. None of these are bad people, and all of them are right to seek justice in their own way-but the force that grabs you by the throat in House of Sand and Fog is the helplessness you feel watching as the divisive search for stability and self-respect drives otherwise decent people to orchestrate their own self-destruction. The acting is triumphant, with Mr. Kingsley vividly demonstrating the alienation he feels as an immigrant abroad, Ms. Connelly showing the frustration of being an outcast in her own country, and Mr. Eldard as a flawed man of the law unhinged by loneliness and love. The rundown, second-rate house is a symbol of the one thing they each need to redefine their lost pride. Intuitive, subtle and real in all the right ways, this graceful cast finds the key to each character’s vulnerability, which makes them doubly sympathetic. There is heartfelt support from the great Iranian stage and screen actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (herself an exile who has immigrated to America) as Mr. Kingsley’s frightened but compassionate wife, as well as from Jonathan Ahdout as their son and the always reliable Frances Fisher as the lawyer who tries to resolve an impossible situation mired in the red tape of the California judicial system. The script, by director Perelman and Shawn Otto, has thrills and restraint. Everything about House of Sand and Fog engages the emotions, stimulates the intellect and unleashes the adrenaline. It is fresh, original, harrowing and, ultimately, unforgettable.

Fishy Business

Wonders never cease. I long ago surrendered the pursuit of handicapping movies or trying to figure out what critics will say. But every once in a witch’s sabbath, a pile of utter bilge pops up like a boil that needs lancing, and they throw around words like “magical.” That pretty much describes how I feel about Tim Burton’s Big Fish , a load of tripe that no attempt on my part could make sound half as pretentious and conceited as it really is. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I could describe it if I tried. I don’t even know what it was about, and I suffered through the whole damn thing. Something about an old liar named Edward Bloom (Albert Finney, looking fried) who is dying of cancer and has spent his entire life telling tall tales to make himself look important, to the embarrassment of his son (Billy Crudup), now a reporter who sits by his father’s death bed trying to get at some version-any version-of the truth. One of the fairy tales is about a giant fish that can only be caught by a gold wedding ring after worms and peanut butter have failed. And so, in a series of interminable flashbacks, the old man, without a trace of charm, relives the ludicrous flummery of his youth, with Ewan McGregor playing him at half the age. One day, a giant invades the town and eats the livestock; Bloom befriends the monster and escorts him to a big city where the buildings are the same size as the giant, making him feel at home. But on the way, Bloom takes a detour through a haunted swamp and ends up in a village where nobody wears shoes and the big fish of the title swims in the river in the form of a naked woman.

So what’s the only way to catch an uncatchable naked woman? With a gold wedding ring, dummy. Drafted, Bloom invades Vietnam by parachuting into the dressing room of Siamese twins. Later, he robs a bank that has already been bankrupted by Texas real-estate speculators. The movie drags on and on, preposterous and light as lard. Freaky cameos include Jessica Lange as the old man’s long-suffering wife, who climbs into the bathtub fully clothed with her dying husband, and Danny DeVito as a naked werewolf. This you do not want to see. Trust me.

What will they come up with next? One critic has called this lunk-headed lunacy as “American as apple pie-not unlike Pee-wee’s Big Adventure !” Another critic describes the cancer-ridden old wacko as God disguised as Everyman. I wouldn’t know: I spent most of the running time deliriously sound asleep, but unfortunately woke up in time for the surprise ending, where Albert Finney dies and turns into a fish himself. This is not a bad thing. Dozing, I mean. Sleeping through a movie is God’s way of editing.

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