U.S. Release Date: December 19, 2003
Distributor: Sony (Revolution)
Director: Mike Newell
Writer: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
Producer: Joe Roth (Executive)
Composer: Rachel Portman
Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, John Slattery, Topher Grace
Running Time: 1 hour and 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and thematic issues)

by Scott Holleran

A plot about college intellectuals, rising young actresses, a soundtrack with pop standards—director Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile has so much going for it, including a bold role for Julia Roberts: college professor. It's too bad Newell's college girl movie is packed with cliches.

A major problem is Julia Roberts, who looks and sounds like she stepped out of 1995, even when she's wearing 1950s-era costumes. From the moment she arrives at all-female Wellesley as art history professor Katherine Watson in 1953, she is unconvincing.

Professor Watson is unprepared for her first day of class. As she faces a class of young women who exceed the course requirements, the audience is supposed to feel sorry for the professor. It's hard to feel sympathy for someone who expects the worst—not the best—from the nation's top college students.

Yet Watson's victimhood permeates Mona Lisa Smile, which is less a challenge to conformity than a half-baked indictment of having any ideas, standards and values. Women are to be pitied and Professor Watson is the sisterhood's foremost martyr. Watson stumbles on some decent lesson plans—she explains that paint-by-numbers is unoriginal—but she spends most of her time at Wellesley treating men like dirt, berating students for wanting to get married and being an emotionally wrecked busybody.

Mona Lisa Smile substitutes stereotypes for the emerging independent American woman: the loose Jewish girl (Maggie Gyllenhaal, mistaking woozy for liberated), whose slutty behavior is shown as proof of her virtue, the ugly duckling (a good performance by Ginnifer Goodwin), the teacher's pet (Julia Stiles, delivering a perfect pitch in every scene) and the uptight white girl (Kirsten Dunst, helpless in the worst role). They are not individuals. They are cliches—and they are not alone.

The Wellesley girls are joined by an uptight house mother (Marcia Gay Harden), an uptight college president (Marian Seldes), and an uptight mother, played by Donna Mitchell, who must have been forced to copy Mary Astor's mother-villain from Return to Peyton Place.

Those looking for plot will instead find a series of pasted-together scenes. At one point, Professor Watson has slept with a man who slept with the Jewish slut who saw the WASP's husband with… don't bother trying to follow the story. By the time Mona Lisa Smile is over, the fat girl is the only one who has conducted herself with honor. The rest of the women of Wellesley are tramps, liars, drunks—and, yes, there is one lesbian, a professor played by the radiant Juliet Stevenson, but she, too, is a victim.

Julia Roberts veers from sullen to giddy and for no apparent reason. As a scholar, she conveys no sense of authority, no genuine interest in the girls—she is competing with them as an equal, not guiding them as an instructor—and she demonstrates no passion for education. In her first dramatic role as an authority figure—it's been ten years since *she* was the college student in The Pelican Brief—Roberts' performance is affected.

The fault lies partly with director Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral). In a climactic scene, one student finally tells nosy Professor Watson to stop pontificating about autonomy and practice what she preaches. Yet—and this is Mona Lisa Smile's biggest disappointment—the defiant student is rejecting a life of goals and productive achievement in favor of housewifery.

The notion that woman—and man—ought to be one's best and that traditionalism—which dominated the culture of the 1950's—stifles the human spirit is an inviting theme for a thought-provoking motion picture. Despite its promise, Mona Lisa Smile, which is neither artful nor cheerful, is not that movie.

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