A dirty job, but someone had to do it -- teach those Wellesley students to think for themselves back in the 1950s. And who better than Julia Roberts? In Mona Lisa Smile, she plays a feminist Art History teacher with a nonconformist agenda and a terrific smile of her own. Unfortunately, the film's social-issue exaggeration, numerous stereotypes and unfinished sub-plots prove insurmountable, even for one of Hollywood's most watchable stars.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I attended a prestigious women's college like Wellesley at about the same time covered in this movie. None of the students, teachers or administrators remotely resembled anyone depicted in Mona Lisa Smile. Students didn't date the male professors or try to humiliate new instructors. Administrators didn't sneak into the classroom to evaluate a beginning teacher's first meeting with her students. And it would have been unthinkable for any instructor to meddle in our personal lives.
But meddling is Katherine Watson's (Roberts) middle name. She can't stand the school's emphasis on helping women become good wives and mothers. She disses her colleague's (Marcia Gay Harden) "poise" sessions with the students and almost forces one of her most promising students (Julia Stiles) into applying for law school, knowing full well it will interfere with the woman's upcoming wedding plans. Not that she's against marriage; she believes her students can have both a family and career. Most of all, she wants desperately "to make a difference."
My negativity toward Mona Lisa Smile has nothing to do with the performances. Roberts sinks her sparkling-white teeth into the main role, and a "Who's Who" of upcoming young actresses strut their stuff as Wellesley classmates. In addition to Stiles portraying the "intelligent one," the list includes Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man) as the "trouble-maker," Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary) as the "sexy siren," and Ginnifer Goodwin (from TV's Ed) as the "ugly duckling." Sadly, even talented actresses like these couldn't make their characters as written seem more than caricatures. Incidentally, Dominic West (Rock Star) plays the only significant male here, an Italian professor who becomes Watson's love interest -- but, of course, he's not perfect like her.
I can't help being disturbed by the way co-writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (Planet of the Apes) filled their script with so many unfinished segments. Perhaps they had more sub-plots than they could handle, but I don't think that's a good excuse. Attitude and behavior changes seem to happen in the blink of an eye.
Still, under Mike Newell's (Four Weddings and a Funeral) direction, Mona Lisa Smile features top-notch production values. Costumes and music reflect the era perfectly while clear, beautiful colors make every scene lovely to look at.
Because of its focus on education and women's issues -- both areas of longtime major concern to me -- I really wanted to enjoy Mona Lisa Smile. Instead, I came away with a Betty Jo frown.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG-13" for sexual content and thematic issues.)