Mona Lisa December 23, 2016
Some people put so much time and effort into devising the person they’d like to be that there comes a point in which the line between the real them and their idealized self becomes innumerably blurred. Take Mona Lisa’s resident odd couple, George (Bob Hoskins) and Simone (Cathy Tyson). George is a loud-mouthed, almost uncomfortably candid low-level gangster recently released from prison, meticulous in his surrounding himself in a savage, seen-it-all facade. Simone, a beguiling black prostitute, prides herself in the imperceptible shawl of bewitchment that dependably surrounds her. Neither, though, are much willing to reveal their vulnerabilities to the world.
So perhaps they were made for one another — they match in their unwillingness to admit that they’re emotionally fragile people in desperate need of a connection not underlined in someone else’s shallow desires. Under normal circumstances would they never be brought together. But after George’s diabolical former boss Denny Mortwell (Michael Caine) assigns George to act as the driver and bodyguard to Simone, their worlds come together, and, initially, clash. Akin to all cinematic couples that fight like a cat and a dog at first, though, the two eventually come to get to like one another, Simone’s trust ultimately becoming so solidified that she tasks George with finding an old friend (Kate Hardie).
And, being the bizarro Farewell, My Lovely that it is, Mona Lisa (1986) is a sardonic neo-noir as easily able to enrapture with its whodunit fixings and its surprisingly nifty cast chemistry and it is with its cinéma-du-look reminiscent aesthetic. It’s not all street glamour, though — thanks to Neil Jordan’s co-writing and direction, we have a touching, eccentric romance to win us over, detours into violence and sex more a part of the brio than the humanistic core.
It’s as much a popcorn movie as it is a perceptive commentary regarding the lives of street dwellers: think of it as a slice-of-life with sprinklings of Dashiell Hammett. Most of its success rests on the stocky shoulders of Bob Hoskins, who, in his breakthrough role (he won every major acting award but was unexpectedly beat out by Paul Newman for the Academy Award) is so perfectly cast that his performance — that of a classic underdog— instantaneously becomes indelible. It’s his Vincent Vega, his Travis Bickle; Hoskins takes a misunderstood, slightly inept outsider and makes him cuddly. Comparatively excellent are Tyson and Caine, the former a sphinx not to be trusted and the latter the sort of grimy villain that feels all too much a part of our reality to easily shake off.
Along with their supporting players do they form a seedy world intriguing to visit. Mona Lisa is the sort of noir that, like The Big Sleep (1946) or Chinatown (1974), magnetizes just as much as it repulses. We’re bewitched by what it has to offer but are distinctly aware that presented is not a world we’d much like to live in. But nevertheless are all the false leads and killer dames and ruthless thugs compelling beings to be in the company of for a couple hours; this is modern, cynical noir to be cherished. B+