Mona Lisa Smile

In Mona Lisa Smile, set in 1953, Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, an art-history professor from California who lands a teaching job at Wellesley. From the look of things, she appears to have crossed over from the Brave New World to a cloistered institution that’s almost as creepy as Hogwarts. The students in her class have minds as corseted as their figures; it takes proto-feminist Katherine to awaken the girls’ intellectual potential. I much prefer School of Rock for this sort of thing.

Director Mike Newell and screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal should have uncorseted their own imaginations. The girls on display are all tightly stereotyped. There’s snooty Betty (Kirsten Dunst), whose gorgon mother is on the board of trustees and who values marriage above all else; Joan (Julia Stiles), the valedictorian who can’t decide between her boyfriend and Yale Law School; Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who can be terrific in anything), the free spirit who sleeps around; and Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin), the scholarship student who doesn’t think she’s good enough for the Harvard guy. To top it all off, there’s also wallflower Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden, surprisingly touching), who teaches speech, elocution, and poise and is just mad about chintz.

It’s not much fun watching pigeons struggling inside their pigeonholes. Mona Lisa Smile is a thesis movie. It’s saying that women in the early fifties suffered the brunt of the era’s crushing conformity. But that sameness is vastly oversold here (as it is in most popular accounts). And surely at that time—especially at a place like Wellesley—there were many more free-thinking women than this film allows for. The movie makes it seem as if Katherine had arrived from another galaxy to spread the good word. The Wellesley potentates are depicted as equally backward; they denounce Katherine’s progressive, be-all-that-you-can-be teaching methods and send her packing. Everything about this movie seems off-key, starting with its title. Mona Lisa is likened to Katherine, but was there ever an actress with a less enigmatic smile than Julia Roberts? (2 hr. 3 mins.; PG-13) — PETER RAINER

Opens December 19
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