[Screen It]

(2003) (Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst) (PG-13)

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Drama: A progressive-thinking art teacher takes a job at a conservative women's college with hopes of enlightening her students about the possibilities in their lives beyond serving their future husbands.
It's the fall of 1953 and Katherine Watson (JULIA ROBERTS) has left California and boyfriend Paul Moore (JOHN SLATTERY) for the New England campus of Wellesley College where she's to teach art history. She ends up being housemates with Nancy Abbey (MARCIA GAY HARDEN), the old-fashioned poise and elocution instructor, and meets Amanda Armstrong (JULIET STEVENSON), the school nurse whose lesbian lover has recently died.

Katherine has high hopes for teaching the best and brightest young women in the country, but knows of Wellesley's reputation for being the most conservative college around. Even so, she's shocked to learn that the various students - including Elizabeth "Betty" Warren (KIRSTEN DUNST), Joan Brandwyn (JULIA STILES) and Connie Baker (GINNIFER GOODWIN) - are basically wiling away their time until they get married and become wives and mothers to the likes of "catches" Tommy Donegal (TOPHER GRACE) and Spencer Jones (JORDAN BRIDGES).

Only the slightly bohemian Giselle Levy (MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL) seems to buck the trend, but she's interested in continuing her love affair with Italian professor Bill Dunbar (DOMINIC WEST) who's now set his sights on Katherine instead.

While dealing with that, Katherine also decides to chuck the class syllabus when she learns that her students are incredibly book smart but have no idea how to think outside the box. That obviously leads to strife with the college administrators who don't like her bending the rules as well as Betty who sets out to destroy her career, just like she did with Amanda. From that point on, Katherine tries to get her students to see the possibilities in their lives beyond serving their future husbands, all while dealing with her own personal life.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Knowing little about "Mona Lisa Smile" before seeing it other than it starred Julia Roberts and her radiant personality and smile in a "Dead Poets Society" sort of story, I had little idea it was a science fiction film. Okay, it really isn't, but I'd swear that the progressive-thinking teacher character that Roberts plays has time-traveled from the present back to the early 1950s.

She's appears to have done so to educate the uninformed about the pending error of their and society's ways and obviously learn a thing or two about herself in the process. Now that I think about it, that might have made for a more believable picture than what we've been offered here.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for examining history and cultural mores with 20/20 hindsight, particularly when it proves that some of today's social rules and beliefs might be just as wrong as others were in the past.

Yet, and despite all of the obvious best intentions of being an inspirational film that promotes accomplishment and self-reliance, making a period film with such modern sensibilities could seem a bit disingenuous if not ridiculous. While this offering thankfully doesn't delve into the latter, it certainly strains credibility at times.

And I'm sad to report that much of that has to do with Roberts (Ocean's Eleven," "America's Sweethearts") and the way in which her character has been crafted and played. Simply put, the beloved, popular and talented actress simply doesn't fit into the proceedings, thus creating that time traveler feel.

While a great deal of that stems from the story and character elements concocted by screenwriters Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal ("Planet of the Apes," "Mighty Joe Young"), at least as much or more of the fault lies squarely on Roberts' shoulders. Rather than becoming the character, she feels like a modern movie star playing the part, and that hampers a sizable part of the film's efforts.

The rest stems from her character's actions and dialogue. While I'm sure there were plenty of progressive thinkers regarding women's rights and female empowerment half a century ago, they probably chose their battles carefully rather than storming into the most conservative women's college in the country and trying to liberate the students from its and their backward thinking.

Of course, all of that is present mainly as a storytelling device that director Mike Newell ("Pushing Tin," "Donnie Brasco) uses to introduce conflict targeted at the protagonist and her goal. Yet, it all seems too artificial and contrived, especially when she so easily changes her students' mindset once figuring out how to do so. Surprisingly, all that takes here is a bunch of art as life symbolism followed by a slide show of ads demonstrating women's subservient role in the early '50s.

While the protagonist is obviously correct in her assessments, the metaphors are laid on a bit too thick (yes, even including a "paint by numbers" bit of symbolism) and everything is resolved and wrapped up too quickly at the end. In addition, her actions back then would have seem like heresy and it's doubtful that many, if any of the traditionally minded students would have so quickly changed their ways or minds, particularly with no other corroborating evidence.

Speaking of them, most of those characters seem designed to showcase just one broad characteristic (mean, ambitious but uncertain, bohemian and promiscuous, wallflower wanting to break out, etc.) that's integral to the story's design rather than being full-blooded, three dimensional characters that we could and should come to care about. Despite their period attire and hairdos, they also at times feel a bit too contemporary for the setting, although not to the degree concerning Roberts.

If one can put all of that behind them -- and that's a big "if" -- the film does work moderately well as a crowd-pleasing, inspirational sort of effort. Much of that, however, stems from who's in front of the camera rather than the work of those behind it. Beyond Roberts and all the aforementioned baggage she brings to the table, the terrific cast includes the likes of Kirsten Dunst ("Spider-Man," "Bring It On") as the smart but mean girl who eventually has a change of heart.

Julia Stiles ("A Guy Thing," "Save the Last Dance") plays the girl most likely to succeed with just the right touch, and Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Secretary," "Adaptation") lights up the screen as the bohemian of the bunch who tries to find happiness in the arms and beds of older men. Ginnifer Goodwin (making her feature debut) solidly rounds out the main student characters.

On the adult side, Marcia Gay Harden ("Mystic River," "Pollock") is good as the etiquette instructor who's secure but not happy in her life, while Dominic West ("Chicago," "Rock Star") plays a professor who sleeps with both his students and colleagues.

I completely understand and appreciate what the film is trying to do and be. Most of us have had one or more teachers, instructors or coaches in our lives who inspired us to be the best that we could. Thus, I'm all for these sorts of "feel good" films that portray such characters and related motivation.

I just wish the mechanics and specifics of this effort weren't so obvious, clunky and ultimately hard to buy. While it has a great cast and some fine individual performances and moments, as a whole, "Mona Lisa Smile" feels like a copy of a great piece of art rather than the real thing. It rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 4, 2003 / Posted December 19, 2003

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