Mona Lisa Smile directed by Mike Newell, written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, produced by Richard Baratta, Elaine Goldsmith Thomas, Paul Schiff and Deborah Schindler, with Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal. A Columbia TriStar release. 100 minutes. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 84. Rating: NN
Mona Lisa smiles poses as a retro -feminist Dead Poets Society, but doesn't really deliver. It stars Julia Roberts as a bohemian art history teacher appalled to discover that her snooty 1950s women's college is nothing more than a training academy for Harvard (read Stepford) wives.
The film is way hypocritical. It invites you to sneer at the school's opulent snobbery, but ogles all the trappings of wealth as shamelessly as if it were directed by James Ivory.
Likewise, its overt message - that women can be more than appendages - is contradicted by the fact that the plot is structured almost exclusively around the marriage prospects of Roberts's students.
Oh, they learn about art, too. She takes them to a warehouse where a new Jackson Pollock canvas is being uncrated, and the girls gape in happy awe, trying to figure out what the hell they're looking at as the camera pans the painting.
But even if you take this seriously as evidence of intellectual awakening, since when is art appreciation a revolutionary pastime for wealthy housewives?
Maybe it's churlish to complain that this movie isn't going to get any equal rights amendments passed; it does feature the free-spirited Roberts encouraging girls to juggle career and family. But her rebellion - she doesn't want to marry right this second - proves to be strictly a personal accessory (like her big bohemian leather bag) that has no impact on the institutions she defies.
The young cast does a valiant job of making something watchable out of the cardboard dialogue. There's a moment between Kirsten Dunst (playing the bad guy!) and Maggie Gyllenhaal that almost makes you forget the tripe that's gone before. And, to be fair, the film does come down hard on the 50s ideal of femininity, so you can send your daughters to see it without fear of compromising their 21st-century values.
Or you could let them stay in and rent something smart that gives girls their due, like Ghost World or Ginger Snaps.
Mona Lisa Smile is just pretend feminism, teaching girls that rebellion is fetching as long as it doesn't change anything.