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If a movie is based on a true story, can it rightly be accused of ripping off another film? Calendar Girls, it seems, is a case of art imitating life imitating art. The plot follows a group of women, all middle-aged and unashamedly un-nipped/tucked, who decide that the best way to make some money is by taking off their clothes. The women are British and quirky. In their proper Yorkshire town, their brazen act is at first cause for scandal, then celebration.
Whatever their inspiration, the real-life women of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute, a social club that gathers for lectures on topics such as “the fascinating world of rugsand all forms of carpeting,” decided to go the full monty in 1998. When John Baker, the husband of one of the group’s members, died from lymphoma, the WI added a twist to its annual calendar in order to raise money in his memory: The usual photographic subjects of appropriately decorative sticky buns and pressed flowers would be used to hide the naughty bits of inappropriately nude WIers.
The predictable but charming Calendar Girls presents the WI group as less ladies who lunch than cliquey schoolgirls, sharply divided into bookworms and troublemakers , all presided over by the marmish Marie (Geraldine James). Helen Mirren stars as Chris, the brains behind the calendar and black sheep of the bunch. A WI member mostly out of boredom, Chris is criticized for offering activity ideas such as “vodka-tasting night” and defends herself with “I’m not a total dead loss as a woman!” when her friends express shock that she actually prepared a cake for a bake-off (though it turns out to be store-bought). Julie Walters, the Harry Potter films’ Mrs. Weasley, plays John’s wife, Annie (here renamed Clarke).
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First-time feature writers Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi conceived their characters with a sugared tartness that helps keep the movie’s feel-goodness in check, even as the story glosses over such unpleasantness as John’s prolonged illness. (His death comes minutes after his announcement that he’s ill.) A smattering of conflict near the end also rings false, feeling as if it were tacked on for depthof course, even at just 108 minutes, Calendar Girls’ one-joke plot threatens to wear thin.
Still, the cast, drawn mostly from the cozier reaches of British TV, play well together, with the friendship between Mirren’s eye-rolling but never bitchy Chris, Walters’ upbeat but heartbroken Annie, and Penelope Wilton’s soon-to-blossom wallflower Ruth seeming especially natural. The actresses’ camaraderie is especially evident during a scene in which they discuss the project with a photographer, Lawrence (played with nervous exasperation by Philip Glenister), and at the subsequent photo shoot. From their tense drawing of cards to see who will be photographed first to their whispered asides of “Bad girl!” and “Bun-toucher!” when Lawrence admonishes them for messing with his setup, the women consistently project the mutual ease of lifelong friends.
Most the movie’s humor is as successful as it is dry, especially the discriminating reactions to the calendar from local men: “You’re nude in the Telee-graph!” a gray-haired man says to his wife while reading the morning paper. “Can you pass the bacon?” Calendar Girls’ biggest problem is that its emotional apex, which comes with the unforeseen success of the calendar, takes place shortly after its midpoint: What should have been the payoff is merely a setup for the suddenly famous characters to sink back to the normality of family problems and fetching the newspaper. But this is only a quibble. Even when “normal,” the women of Calendar Girls are rather fun to have hanging around.
Mona Lisa Smile, the much-hyped Julia Roberts vehicle about Wellesley in the ’50s, also has a cinematic twin: It might as well be subtitled Dead Artists Society. Instead of standing on their desks to quote “O Captain! My Captain!” the students of Mona Lisa Smile give their beloved teacher paint-by-numbers canvases of famous works of art. Of course, Wellesley girls don’t give up their love easilymeaning that the shower of kitsch was well-earned: This particular educator, a first-year art-history professor, Made a Difference.
If it weren’t for the film’s swelling orchestral score, though, you might never notice. Roberts plays the heroine in question, California “bohemian” Katherine Watson, who’s thrilled to be teaching at the prestigious New England women’s college but is unsettled by what she finds when she gets there. From her rigidly proper roommate, Nancy (a hilarious Marcia Gay Harden), a “speech, elocution, and poise” professor, to her classroomful of parroting Lisa Simpsons who, regardless of their achievements, are more interested in marriage than careers, Katherine is surrounded by one dispiriting example after another. She angrily determines that she’s employed by “a finishing school disguised as a college.”
Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal co-star as a trio of self-possessed students who question both Katherine’s credentials and her lack of a wedding band. Each has a screaming character trait: Betty (Dunst) is bitchy, Joan (Stiles) doesn’t really want to be a lawyer, and Giselle (Gyllenhaal) is “liberated” (aka a slut). Out of the three, only Gyllenhaal manages to make her character believable, mostly because she eschews Stiles’ and Dunst’s gratingly phony New England accents.
The story follows the bunch through the academic year, though the film comes to a dead stop midway for an extended sequence dedicated to Betty’s wedding. Katherine’s exasperation at school policies such as ignoring the absences of a recently betrothed student and firing the nurse for handing out birth control gets her labeled a “subversive”which, along with the cool reception she gets from her students, leaves her continuing employment in question.
For a film that harps on the virtues of free thinking, Mona Lisa is pretty straitlaced, with Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal’s script and Mike Newell’s direction contriving conflict only to set up a predictably mawkish resolution. Worse, its supposedly transformative relationships seem founded on nothing: Katherine and a fellow professor (Dominic West) exchange spark-free small talk before suddenly cooing at each other before a fire; her students suddenly appreciate her tough love not because of any life-changing experiences but because, it seems, the movie’s coming to an end.
Roberts has a few skillful moments in her largely unexciting role, mostly when she reminds us that she tends to approach her personification of America’s sweetheart with a bite. (When showing slides of gender-defining ads, she charges: “A girdle to set you freewhat does that mean?”) The film’s standout, however, is Harden, perfectly postured and dainty from her opening line of “Don’t you just love chintz?” to her slurred come-on to a bartender at Betty’s wedding.
Mona Lisa’s wardrobe and soundtrack are also well-manicured, with tailored clothing, bright lipstick, and clip-on earrings mixing with songs such as “Santa Baby” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You” to convincingly evoke the era. But like Katherine’s students, Mona Lisa only mimics: Underneath its good looks, it doesn’t have an original idea in its pretty little head. CP