It goes without saying that Mona Lisa Smile was pitched as a female take on Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society, but the new Julia Roberts vehicle has its own distinctive wrinkle. Set in the early '50s, the film takes on the Big Social Issue of feminism. A smart take on incipient feminism will always be welcome, but this ain't A Doll's House. It's not even Dead Poets Society. Even as it rages against conformity, Mona Lisa Smile indulges formula without shadings.
Weir's film and the more recent teacher opus The Emperor's Club allowed for the consequences of reckless righteousness, but Mona Lisa Smile never pays more than lip service to the students' contrary convictions on the flip side of Roberts's good intentions. Screenwriters Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal introduce Roberts's tenacious teacher Katherine Watson in a wooden voice-over: "This Bohemian from California was on her way to the most conservative college in the nation...she wanted to make a difference." When Watson arrives at Wellesley College, she meets a cowed faculty, an army of well-heeled students determined to haze the bright-eyed recruit, institutionalized sexism, and doubtful anti-intellectualism. How dare this art teacher consider modern art?! Pablo "Splotches" Picasso and Jackson Pollock may be recognized by Life magazine, but not by the Wellesley classroom circa 1953, according to Konner & Rosenthal. Soon, Watson is calling Wellesley "a finishing school disguised as a college." The absurdities of home economics study and hysterical conservative policy are taken for a postmodern-perspective spin.
The young women in Watson's charge are all whip-smart and either overtly or internally cynical. Best friends Betty and Joan (Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles, both sharp) share visions of their foregone-conclusion weddings, abated only by their free-thinking art teacher, who dangles the option of vocation. Watson isn't flawless: she and Betty nakedly hate each other, and Watson inadvisably dallies with a randy colleague (Dominic West). But the film never doubts Watson. Sure, history has proven her right (and isn't that a great starting point for an issue-based drama?), but she also oversteps her bounds as an educator with her moralistic meddling. Her abortive attempts at romance give Roberts a momentary opportunity to act, but her scenes as teacher and unofficial den mother encourage steaming pouts and the ol' Roberts chestnuts: high-wattage smiling and laughing.
Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) pretties up the story with soft-lit period detail: elegantly hazy photography and lightly muted color suggest '50s photography of a picture-perfect universe which Roberts must broach with her "Bohemian" charm. The film benefits from solid acting: a funny-dark performance by Marcia Gay Harden as Roberts's colleague and roommate, a sweet one by Ginnifer Goodwin as a girl swallowed up by her low self-image, and a vivacious one by star-in-the-making Maggie Gyllenhaal as the most liberated student. But the story returns us to now-incredible attitudes without ever attaining dramatic credibility. Predictably, this thoroughly manipulative film climaxes with a suspiciously sunny ending which enshrines Watson but good. Mirroring the film's clumsy metaphor, Mona Lisa Smile paints by the numbers.