Monday, August 3, 2009

Review: Mrs. Washington goes to Smith

As a graduate of Smith College, I'd been looking forward to the Hallmark Channel's summer presentation of "Mrs. Washington goes to Smith", a story about a woman in her late 40's (played realistically by Cybill Shepherd) returning to her (and my) alma mater to finish her degree.

Yes that's a map of Smith's campus. Not that it matters.
It's the only time you see the campus at all in this movie.

Let's get this out of the way: Because I'm a Smith graduate, I expected a lot more from this movie than I do from standard tv-movie fare. The Smith campus is beautiful, the academics are intense, and the students are intelligent and well-spoken. Though I know that Hallmark Movies are generally known for their tear-jerking, I figured Shepherd had the acting chops to pull off any kind of gushy plot. Yet even she couldn't save this overly-emotional mire.

Part of the issue might be that there was so little discussion about the program she was enrolled in; the Ada Comstock program for 'non-traditional' students. Three of my 4 years at Smith were spent in Northrop house, which had a surprisingly large population of Adas, and they were ALWAYS given singles. They interacted with traditional students in (might I say it) a traditional way. That is to say, they did not treat other students in the house as daughters, but as other people who happened to be in the same place for the same purpose as they were. Like going to the bank, it hardly matters if the person in line in front of you is ten years younger or 30 years older. Hallmark Channel's script, glossed over the entire interaction between students.

My own disappointment was heightened by the filming location which was clearly not Smith's campus, or even Northampton. Location for the film is listed as Los Angeles. I found myself straining at every shot, trying to find some semblance of Smith's architecture. And it was there. Barely. Hallmark's Smith College has a lot more stairs than the real version, I noticed. Shepherd's Alice Washington was always going up some stairs or down some stairs, noticing a professor on the stairs, calling out to someone on another floor.

Mostly, the biggest issue with "Mrs. Washington goes to Smith" was the ridiculously flat script. The plot, which centers mainly around the interaction of Mrs. Washington, her 20 year old roommate and their poetry professor (omg, We both have a huge crush on him! That is sooooo wrong!), feels stiff and over-acted. The viewer has a hard time becoming really engaged with this movie, since at no point does the plot really leap off the screen.

The realest moments came at the Thanksgiving scene when Mrs. Washington returns home to create a holiday feast for her two children who are by turns impressed, proud and completely horrified by their mother's insistence on living her own life and finishing her degree. This intimate portrayal of a mother doing something for herself for a change and the critical reaction of her self-absorbed daughter are perhaps the most interesting points of the whole movie. These reflections on adult education probably ring true for many Ada Comstock students.

The rest of the story, alas, was too saccharine to reflect upon. Every moment seemed heavy with things unsaid. And every interaction between the poetry professor and roommate Zoe or Mrs. Washington verged on too painful to watch. What might have been a poignant tale of an autonomous woman finally doing something for herself becomes an awkward love-triangle that has nothing to do with the setting or characters involved.

The backdrop of Smith College becomes less than even a backdrop; it becomes a set-up for the title's cutesy switch-a-roo of 1939's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington". Had the former movie not been made, this movie would be of no more interest or notoriety than any other tear-jerker hosted on Hallmark. And as "Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith" shares no more attributes with that old classic than the title.

Ultimately, the only word that sums up Hallmark's "Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith" is "disappointment".


Abby said...

I went to Smith and just watched it, too. I heartily concur with all your comments. I also thought the "students" didn't seem like Smithies. They seemed all too happy to sit around and squeal about this and that. The part that killed me was in one of the opening shots where Cybill Shepherd is entering the dorm and the camera is panning around to show all the students, a couple of girls are actually, gleefully, tossing soft plush toys back and forth to each other.

Selena said...

As a former Smithie and Northrop resident, I was extremely disappointed when I saw this the other day. A Smithie recommended it to me when I complained about the lack of movies taking place at Smith, and not just featuring Smithies. I was hoping for much better.