Mona Lisa Smile

on December 19, 2003 by Wade Major
Nascent feminism and pre-Sexual Revolution hypocrisy are the presumed bullet points for director Mike Newell's rather shameless gender-bent clone of "Dead Poets Society," "Mona Lisa Smile." Though generally competent and amiable, the picture's accumulation of well-worn beats invite so many unfavorable comparisons to such classics as "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Browning Version," "Stand and Deliver" and numerous others that it's hard to give it points for much of anything other than strong performances.

Julia Roberts received a reported record-breaking $25 million payday to play the part of Katherine Watson, a restless young art history professor who segues from sunny, undisciplined California to the mired-in-tradition halls of Massachusetts' famous, all-female Wellesley College. Impressed by the devotion and aptitude of her students, she is nonetheless deeply discouraged by the failure of both institution and community to encourage the girls to become anything other than obedient wives and doting mothers. Four, in particular, earn her interest--willful, rebellious debutante Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), flirtatious and promiscuous Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), studious Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) and bubbly but insecure Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin). But this is a genre in which excellence and non-conformity all but insure academic martyrdom, placing Watson and her students on a collision course with the previous generation's tenacious embrace of increasingly outmoded values.

Veteran action and comedy writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal deserve some credit both for attempting to tackle more serious fare and for doing so through the eyes of the opposite gender. But the template is simply too obvious, leaving little doubt as to how the film will progress and what each character's eventual outcome will be. It's a fine cast, however, with excellent turns all around (including colorful supporting performances from Juliet Stevenson, Dominic West and Marcia Gay Harden) that quite nearly sustain the picture even through its painfully predictable plot. Starring Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Ginnifer Goodwin and Marcia Gay Harden. Directed by Mike Newell. Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. Produced by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler and Paul Schiff. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and thematic issues. Running time: 117 min

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