Mark Kermode - School for scandal

Film - <em>Dead Poets Society</em> for girls, and pseudo-artsy masturbation. By Mark Kermode


While the multiplexes will be packed this week by teenagers laughing their heads off at the ironically retro Starsky and Hutch (yet another big-screen spin-off of a TV series the target audience is too young to remember), those in search of more educational entertainment may wish to enrol for "Developmental Drama 101", courtesy of Mona Lisa Smile. Boasting an impressive ensemble cast that brings together many of Hollywood's most saleable female stars, this is basically Dead Poets Society for girls with extra sugar on top and a side order of fluff to go. Julia Roberts is all wide smiles and discreet tears as the "progressive" art history teacher whose 1953 tenure at a posh-frock college in New England sets radical cats among the academic pigeons. One moment her over-privileged charges are regurgitating textbooks and preparing to become model housewives, the next they're hanging out in warehouses ogling newly splurged can-vases by Jackson Pollock and wondering whether all criticism is subjective after all. Most importantly, some of them learn that there may be more to life than marriage - a shocking discovery that has the college deans sweating about seditious teaching, particularly in the wake of a recent contraceptive scandal.

Although Wellesley College was merrily churning out feisty firebrands such as Hil-lary Rodham Clinton by the mid-1960s, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal's naive script wonders about the period "before the vocabulary of feminism was handed to women on a silver platter", when French literature and history of art were taught alongside tips about how to entertain your dreary husband's boss. The result, while being far more loveable than the awful Robin Williams fiasco to which it owes a debt, remains a wishy-washy affair, full of guilty pleasures such as Marcia Gay Harden's neurotic spinster cameo ("Don't you just love chintz?"), but entirely lacking the incisive bite needed to lift it out of the melodramatic doldrums. Not even the majestically spiky Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose sloping shoulders and quizzical features were employed to such subversive ends in Secretary, can sharpen the blunted edge of the film's feel-good factor. Director Mike Newell employs the same nostalgic eye for recent history that characterised his breakthrough feature Dance with a Stranger, and there is much to smile about in his cheeky evocation of a faded American dream (the credit-sequence adverts telling men to "Make her happy with a Hoover!" are fabulous). Not entirely unedifying, then, but nowhere near as liberating as the intriguing subject matter suggests.

While the well-oiled machine of Mona Lisa Smile may prove too neatly pre-packaged for many viewers, the ramshackle Brit-pic The Principles of Lust had me gagging for an unimprovised line of dialogue that didn't involve somebody shrieking "fuck!". A tale of sex, drugs and the gratuitous abuse of literature, this "controversial" bore was knocked up in five weeks at the end of 2001, since when it has festered unloved upon a shelf. If only it had stayed there. It's partly the endless parade of predictable caricatures doing "extreme" things (Group sex! Oo-er! Stripping! Crikey!) that makes one despair. And it's partly an annoyance at Danish prankster Lars von Trier for making this sort of faux verite nonsense fashionable and encouraging upcoming film-makers to think that a fleeting whiff of hard-core sex will make them seem "authentic". (There seemed to be a celebrity erection somewhere in there.)

But the film's real offence against decency is the pompously dishonest way in which it melds cheap-shock exploitation with dreary A-level invocations of the likes of George bloody Batailles. Thus, not only do we get to watch 11-year- olds biting each other's cheeks off and TV stars getting their knobs out, we also have to listen to some insufferable undergraduate phil-osophising about all human progress happening at the edges of extremity. "I love people who don't censor themselves but keep saying yes to new experiences," burbles the film's writer/ director, Penny Woolcock, in the press notes. "I am grateful to them for keeping the door open to other possibilities." Oh, grow up.

Buried amid all this pseudo-artsy masturbation there are platitudes about love outlasting lust, and a message about children that seems to boil down to it being better for parents to love their kids than to enter them into illegal bare-knuckle fighting contests. Oh, and everyone blames their mums and dads for everything. Beyond that, we're left wondering whether the recent relaxation of British censorship guidelines was such a good thing after all, if it means we have to endure dreary rubbish such as von Trier's The Idiots, Catherine Breillat's Romance and now this unconvincingly "realistic" portrait of people who don't exist performing for an audience that probably doesn't either.

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