Mona Lisa Smile

To make a point about the difficulty of defining the boundaries of art, junior Wellesley art-history professor Julia Roberts shows her students a slide show of advertisements aimed at women. Those ads don't look much like art–they're filled with the glossy-eyed commitment to better living through girdles and vacuums of Mona Lisa Smile's early-'50s setting–but Roberts suggests that they still might have some value, if only because of what they might suggest to people of the future. That should be an open-ended question, but Mona Lisa Smile has an easy answer: Man, weren't people uptight back then? Unfolding between matriculation and graduation during the 1953-54 school year, the film captures the period's look, but it seems as much a response to those ads as to actual life in the '50s. Content to let types take the place of characters, Mona Lisa Smile seldom goes beyond the familiar images of the time. Sitting front and center in Roberts' class: the uptight prig (Kirsten Dunst), the bright young woman willing to sacrifice career for family (Julia Stiles), the acid-tongued romantic (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and an ugly girl. (At least she's supposed to be ugly, but since she's played by moon-faced beauty Ginnifer Goodwin, the frequent references to her awkwardness make the film tilt toward science fiction.) The voiceover describes Roberts as a "bohemian," which is apparently synonymous with "an unmarried woman who knows who Jackson Pollock is and occasionally goes to bars that play jazz music." Though impressed by Wellesley's high academic standards, Roberts discovers she's less than "hep" to the Wellesley "scene" when she picks up on the "vibe" that most of the students are interested in education only as a means of landing the right husband. Conflict inevitably follows, pitting the forces of liberation against the forces of repression, but the script by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner (Planet Of The Apes) and the direction by Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Four Weddings And A Funeral) are too timid to let the sides butt heads. Instead, Mona Lisa Smile repeatedly foreshadows blowups that never happen and problems that never arise. It almost takes skill to make this cast dull, but the relentlessly tepid film does it anyway, by never getting the characters straight: Dunst flip-flops between being evil and being misguided, Gyllenhaal plays a talking dry martini one moment and a budding mental case the next, and Stiles hardly registers as a character at all. In the end, Mona Lisa Smile has little to say beyond reiterating that '50s repression might not have been such a good thing. At least viewers will leave well-armed to address the problems of 1955.

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