Julia Roberts stars as Katherine Watson, a California bohemian (she swoons over abstract expressionism and doesn't wear a girdle) who's hired at the all-women's college as an art teacher. Believing her charges just pups, she soon discovers otherwise as the students, all brightly lipsticked and brilliant to the last bloodcurdling smile, shred her to pieces.
After licking her wounds, Katherine tosses out the assigned curriculum and proceeds to give her young recruits a lesson in independent thinking. Enemies are made and minds are opened, including that of the teacher, whose single status and frank dismay at women who lock themselves away in domesticity means that she too must have both her mind opened and knuckles lightly rapped.
Buffed to a high gloss by director Mike Newell, whose best films — "The Good Father," "An Awfully Big Adventure" and "Donnie Brasco" — have a lot more rough around the edges than this one, "Mona Lisa Smile" is a curious, at times awkward hybrid. The film is at once a star vehicle and an ensemble piece, a self-conscious revel in period style and a toothless critique of that very same period. If writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, whose previous credits include "The Jewel of the Nile" and the dolorous remake of "Planet of the Apes," seem unlikely candidates for a crash course in enlightenment, it's not because of their gender but that nothing in their résumés points in this direction. To be honest, their female apes didn't seem all that Alpha.
For this story, though, the screenwriters have cooked up more complex types, Alphas and Betas, Veronicas and Bettys, the distaff versions of the GI Joes from World War II movies. There's the WASP conservative who fumes about "reds" (Kirsten Dunst as Betty), the brainy WASP goddess (Julia Stiles as Joan), a very unorthodox Jew, the token exotic (a marvelous Maggie Gyllenhaal as Giselle) and the girl who's supposed to be the plain one but isn't (newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin as Constance). Packed into the same dorm, these friends balance academics with instruction in white gloves and party manners from Professor Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden), a "spinster" in the mold of Miss Havisham. Harden is her usual winning self as is Juliet Stevenson, who plays the other kind of spinster (think Gertrude Stein), which may explain why she's gone lamentably soon.
There isn't really much of a story, just women trying to find themselves in a world that wants them to lose themselves in men. Plus ça change and all that. Katherine tries to enlighten her students, making the case for choices other than a Mrs., but because the feminism in this film is so deliberately fuzzy, not all that much happens. Each time Katherine strikes a blow for independence, the filmmakers counterbalance with a scene in which another character tempers the teacher's rage and rhetoric. In one of the film's most effective scenes, Katherine delivers a lecture on the absurdity of the mass cultural images of women in contemporary advertising. Waving her hand at images of various Perky Pats and Sunny Susans vacuuming in heels, Katherine cries out, "What does that mean, what does that mean?"
It's a powerful moment, and I wish the filmmakers had had the guts to play out Katherine's question to its logical conclusion — in other words, independence without compromise. If they had, then the film wouldn't be so busy furnishing a love life for all the women, except of course those pathetic spinsters. More critically, it wouldn't need to trot out two separate scenes in which Katherine is admonished — first by a male teacher, then by one of her students — for the very boldness and free thinking that the movie asks us to love. The guy chides Katherine for being perfect (get ready to smell the brassieres burning, buddy) while the student lectures her teacher on the liberation politics of marriage. It's hard to believe that the women who produced this movie, including Roberts, would brook such nonsense.
Beggars, however, can't be choosers, and the truth is that there aren't many movies that speak to women these days. That's not a complaint; it's a statement of fact. "Mona Lisa Smile" is too smug and reductive. But smitten by the rare sight of so many actresses crowding the screen (with their clothes on, no less) and talking about real things that matter to real women — do you need to choose between a life of the mind and a life of hot kitchens and baby diapers? — I fell for the film nonetheless. For all its flaws, its obvious if irrelevant similarity to "Dead Poets Society," it lets us spend some quality time with some of the finest actresses in American film as they give energetic life to one of the most radically underrepresented minorities in Hollywood: the intelligent woman.
In 1969, the Wellesley graduating class representative, Hillary Rodham, gave this response in answer to the idea that young people like her should be satisfied with how President Nixon was running the country. "Our attitudes are easily understood having grown up, having come to consciousness in the first five years of this decade — years dominated by men with dreams, men in the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the space program — so we arrived at Wellesley and we found, as all of us have found, that there was a gap between expectation and realities. But it wasn't a discouraging gap, and it didn't turn us into cynical, bitter old women at the age of 18. It just inspired us to do something about that gap."
What became of this firebrand is one of the more interesting political stories of the past decade. You can feel both bitter and cynical about her story and marvel at the irony of how this wonderfully independent soul would decades later come face to face with Lewinsky, the poster girl for post-feminism. (Indeed, it was the Lewinsky scandal that led the screenwriters to Wellesley.) Like a lot of women, Rodham had to compromise and smile her way to the top. Still, whatever you think of the person she became, there's no denying that, on the brink of entering the world, her idealism was a wonder. If the women in Hollywood who have the power to make decisions burned with just a bit of that Wellesley girl's utopian spirit, it wouldn't just be movie stars and Mona Lisa doing the smiling.
'Mona Lisa Smile'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content and thematic issues.
Times guidelines: Mild sexual content; suitable for young teens.
Julia Roberts...Katherine Watson
Revolution Studios presents a Red Om Films Production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Mike Newell. Writers Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal. Producers Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler, Paul Schiff. Director of photography Anastas Michos. Production designer Jane Musky. Editor Mick Audsley. Costume designer Michael Dennison. Music Rachel Portman. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes In general release.