Mona Lisa Played Out

Playing Mona Lisa is now playing in theaters nationwide. For anexclusive interview with actress Alicia Witt, visit

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Claire Goldstein's boyfriend is about to break her heart. She shows up at his house covered in silly little "Yes!" signs, only to discover that his quasi-proposal the night before had more to do with alcohol than his endearing love.

Directed by recent NYU film school graduate Matthew Huffman, Playing Mona Lisa follows Goldstein (played by Alicia Witt) as she struggles to overcome heartbreak and regain herself. In the meantime, she binges on junk food, weeps on her friends' shoulders and drowns herself in despair over her love gone wrong.

Never mind that Claire's a gifted classical pianist or a graduate from the San Francisco Academy of Music. She's rendered immobile and useless after getting dumped, and there's nothing anyone can do about it - not her mother (played by the effusive Marlo Thomas), nor her teacher-slash-mentor, Bennett (played by Mrs. Doubtfire's Harvey Fierstein). Her best friend and cousin Sabrina (Brooke Langton), a rich party girl, tries in vain to get Claire out of her funk; next-best-friend Arthur ("Roseanne"'s perpetually existential Johnny Galecki) can't seem to brighten her spirits either.

Just when you thought things couldn't get much worse, an earthquake hits Claire's San Francisco apartment (which is as shaky as her sanity) and forces her to move to her parents' house. Pay attention or you might miss this terribly tired San Francisco cliche. The scenario, we'll suppose, goes to show that her building is as susceptible and fragile as her broken-heart love life, teetering on a wobbly emotional balance line.

Sabrina is soon fed up with Claire's mental instability, which is spiraling downward. Her la-di-da plan is to throw a fabulously gaudy party and map out a plan to get Claire interested in men again. She points out the Mona Lisa theory - more for the audience's benefit than for Claire's, it seems - in which a woman must be beguiling and mysterious like the famous portrait to win over men. Her aim is to keep men guessing and never reveal what's really on her mind.

While Claire and Sabrina go to ridiculous lengths to act like Mona Lisa, another man in turn "plays" them (any more and I'd be giving the whole thing away).

The sweet-but-not-sappy Alicia Witt, herself a piano prodigy, plays the role of Claire as beautifully as she plays her instrument. Alicia performs all of the songs in this movie and even composed one. She's probably the most refreshing thing in this film, which is sadly overshadowed by overused situations, underwhelming overactors and overstated expressions.

Has anyone else noticed how saturated movies have become with promotional products and overt advertising? Sadly, Playing Mona Lisa is no exception - it's Crest-ed and Nabisco-ed by heavy product placement. Which leaves me asking, is this a film or a long-winded Polaroid ad?

In its own way, though, Playing Mona Lisa has its own sense of off-beat, weird humor. At the end of the movie Claire's parents accidentally ingest hallucinogens and well, try if you can to imagine two middle-aged middle-class parents on drugs (the movie is, in fact, based on Marni Freedman's play "Two Goldsteins on Acid").

Also noteworthy are the beautiful, soulful scenes in and around San Francisco, such as the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park. Being at Berkeley you tend to take for granted the short Bart-ride distance from this spectacular city, so this movie is definitely worth seeing for all you burnt-out upper-classmen.

At its best, this movie tries to show that we're all - in one way or another - just playing Mona Lisa, or playing it cool, no matter how bad we're really feeling. It's cute and filled with enough plot twists to stave off boredom. You can't help but think, however, that the story is contrived on some level.

Last but not least, I can't write about this movie and not mention the lean, handsome, raspy-voiced Ivan Sergei (the Jill in WB's "Jack and Jill").

Ivan, if you are available, my number's listed.


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