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Movie review: 'Mona Lisa Smile'

Chicago Tribune Movie Critic

2-1/2 stars (out of 4)

"Mona Lisa Smile" is one of those movies where heart and head clash and neither wins. A period women's picture directed by Mike Newell, it gives us Julia Roberts as a fiery art history teacher at Wellesley, 1953. She's an educator with a smile wider and earthier than Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and, unfortunately, far less mysterious.

A progressive who challenges outmoded social/sexual notions at the legendary school, Roberts' Katherine Ann Watson is supposed to be, like Robin Williams in "The Dead Poets Society" or Jon Voight in "Conrack," one of those educators who defies establishments, inspires students, gets into all kinds of trouble and supposedly leaves us awash in sentiment in the last scene.

Not quite. Roberts plays a sexy, smart UCLA graduate from humble roots, with a love for modern art and a talent for breaking barriers. Hers is a character the moviemakers obviously want us to love and admire, just as her students eventually do. Arriving for her first major job, met instantly with disdain from students and bullying from bosses, she does arouse initial empathy. But this is a movie with few secrets or surprises, however much it tries to warm hearts or sell eccentricity and idealism.

"Mona Lisa Smile" does offer a loving, amusingly detailed re-creation of the styles and music of the Eisenhower era, as well as a stellar ensemble of actresses playing the mostly WASP upper-class students and wives-to-be in Katherine's first Wellesley class. Decked out in confining '50s girdles, bras and prejudices, the actresses are fun - especially Julia Stiles as budding lawyer Joan Brandwyn, Maggie Gyllenhaal as class tart Giselle Levy, Ginnifer Goodwin as socially challenged Connie Baker, and Kirsten Dunst as rich-witch nemesis Betty Warren.

I'm partial to this kind of story - and to teachers who really do exist and make a difference. But Katherine is concocted from other movies rather than from personal experience or true sympathetic imagination. Even fizzed up with Roberts' trademark smile, she's closer to Williams in "Patch Adams" than Williams in "Dead Poets Society." Just as trapped by cliches are those wonderful actresses Marcia Gay Harden and Juliet Stevenson, wasted as a repressed elocution teacher and a lesbian birth-control activist, respectively.

Could we have expected more from writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, whose specialty up to now has been adventures and monkeyshines such as "The Jewel of the Nile" and "Star Trek VI," and the remakes of "Planet of the Apes" and "Mighty Joe Young"?

Konner and Rosenthal were inspired to make "Mona," they say, by the fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton attended Wellesley in the '60s - and their writing here is often as slick, melodramatic and self-convinced as the average political ad. As Katherine battles to free her girls' minds while coping with Marian Seldes' frosty president, "Mona" often talks down to us in exactly the ways super-teachers don't.

Still, "Mona" has small pleasures. Newell is a sometime master of the small, smartly crafted "women's picture" ("Enchanted April," "An Awfully Big Adventure," "Dance With a Stranger"), and trapped by cliches himself, he manages the cast and period detail very well. The men here are negligible, but all the actresses are good - especially Dunst, who shows a previously unrevealed gift for blending cold conservative roots, starchy appearance, forgiveness and unexpected redemption.

You might assume that the fact "Mona Lisa Smile" was based on Hillary Clinton's Wellesley years might mean that the authors intended Katherine as a kind of Hillary surrogate. But could it be that there's more of New York's junior senator in Dunst's edgy liberal-to-be Betty?

"Mona Lisa Smile"
Directed by Mike Newell; written by Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal; photographed by Anastos Michas; edited by Mick Audsley; production designed by Jane Musky; music by Rachel Portman; produced by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler, Paul Schiff. A Sony Pictures Entertainment release; opens Friday, Dec. 19. Running time: 1:57. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual themes).
Katherine Ann Watson - Julia Roberts
Betty Warren - Kirsten Dunst
Joan Brandwyn - Julia Stiles
Giselle Levy - Maggie Gyllenhaal
Amanda Armstrong - Juliet Stevenson
Bill Dunbar - Dominic West
Connie Baker - Ginnifer Goodwin
Tommy Donegal - Topher Grace
Paul Moore - John Slattery
Nancy Abbey - Marcia Gay Harden

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