Playing Mona Lisa, based on the play “Two Goldsteins on Acid,” is really a film about life’s meandering journey wrapped in a charming comic shell.
Much is said and observed of our relationships and how they interfere with our priorities, and vice versa.
Leading the film’s charm is the darling actress Alicia Witt, whose real-life accomplished concert pianism gets center stage in her character, Claire Goldstein. Claire is a student of classical piano, passionate since 7 years old for a life of distinguished music. Not only did Ms. Witt play all her pieces in several scenes, she also played all piano music in the film’s soundtrack.
At the film’s outset, we find her in the oddest of crossroads. Claire is indecisive about what she wants in life. Her recent (and first) breakup with Jeremy leaves her emotionally wreaked and unable to perform in recitals. Her family, wanting very much to see her continue her career with classical piano, swoops in to revive her with well-meaning words of wisdom that ultimately drive her further into depression. Says mother (Marlo Thomas), “A woman is like a plate of spaghetti and a man is a meatball. Does the spaghetti taste better with the meatball? Yes. Does the spaghetti need the meatball? No.”
Contributing to her lack of concentration is her party animal friend Sabrina, played by Brooke Langton, whose character is much like Parker Posey’s in Party Girl. Sabrina is reckless with her social life and deludes herself with the ability to “compartmentalize her men.” She thinks she can play with an assortment of lovers without any adverse affects on herself or them, among whom include a married family man. Nevertheless, it’s her spontaneity that Claire clings to, and Sabrina generously hands out advice.
Chief on Sabrina’s list of self help is the concept of “playing Mona Lisa.” The idea is sort of a feminist carpe diem, tapping the inner woman and getting what she wants from men. And yet despite all of Sabrina’s inner strength and Claire’s sincerity, they are both hurt by men.
So has Claire’s gay music teacher Bennet (Harvey Fierstein). His former love “Beau” still haunts him, even while giving Claire advice about moving on with her life. These three principle characters (Claire, Sabrina, and Bennett) soon hover around their respective telephones in a dependent anxiety, waiting in vain for their lost loves to call them. Still, Claire learns the best lessons from Bennett, the most important being that perhaps her lack of focus is actually a transference of her fear of failure. He consoles her, “When you dim your light for someone else to shine, the whole world gets darker.”
As cliched as that may sound on paper, this cast pulls it off admirably. Each bring flesh and blood to their characters. And most impressively, young director Matthew Huffman remains strong in his final act by not giving us an easy way out. I won’t ruin the priceless moment, but suffice it to say that we are left to our imaginations as to what really happens after the credits roll. For as much finally comes together in what otherwise would be several rambling familial tales, much is left unsaid. What will become of Claire’s career, or will she settle for a party life like well-meaning Sabrina? What ever happens to Claire’s sick father now that he and her mother have a renewed relationship? And what of her delusional sister, marrying a man she doesn’t really know?
We are left with the answers. And true to life, we won’t know till we get there.