An appealing female cast gives the hollowly formulaic "Mona Lisa Smile" more dignity than it perhaps deserves, yet it's Julia Roberts in an ill-suited starring role that represents one of the film's chief shortcomings. Should prove a steady draw for women over the holidays, spelling robust business for Sony.

An appealing female cast gives the hollowly formulaic “Mona Lisa Smile” more dignity than it perhaps deserves, yet it’s Julia Roberts in an ill-suited starring role that represents one of the film’s chief shortcomings. Scarcely modifying her standard screen persona to play an early-’50s proto-feminist, the actress amplifies the artificiality of a period story falsely informed by contemporary values rather than those of the time. But the handsome production does engineer the expected emotional surge and should prove a steady draw for women over the holidays, spelling robust business for Sony.

Set at Massachusetts’ prestigious all-female Wellesley College and centering on a strong-willed teacher who preaches against conformity, director Mike Newell’s film inevitably will be billed as a distaff “Dead Poets Society.” However, it seems as much a hybrid of pics like “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and Sidney Lumet’s film of the Mary McCarthy novel “The Group.” Screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal drew inspiration from an article about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s years at Wellesley in the 1960s.

The drama examines the role of women in the WASPiest corner of post-war America, when being a wife and homemaker was considered a girl’s only true calling and social mores dictated maintaining a facade of perfection regardless of any ripples beneath the surface. But those same points so eloquently illustrated in “Far From Heaven” are mapped out here in more obvious, deliberate terms. More specifically, “Mona Lisa” looks at the contradiction inherent in academically brilliant women being steered resolutely toward marriage and motherhood and away from careers.

Art history teacher Katherine Watson (Roberts) comes in fall 1953 to the snobbish Boston Brahmin environment from more liberal-minded California, despite the warnings of boyfriend Paul (John Slattery) that she’ll be out of her element.

Day one in class is a baptism by fire as the smug students flaunt their exhaustive knowledge of the text and humiliate her in front of a supervisor. Determined not to buckle under pressure, Katherine departs from the syllabus in order to regain the upper hand. She begins challenging the girls’ idea of what constitutes art and exposing them to modern artists not endorsed by the fusty school board. The parallel life lesson, daring the girls to think for themselves, is none too subtly imparted by the script.

Far too automatically, Katherine penetrates the girls’ disdain and earns their esteem. The notable exception is moralistic upper-crust brat Betty (Kirsten Dunst), who causes Katherine’s colleague and friend Amanda (Juliet Stevenson) to be fired by revealing in a school newspaper editorial that the free-thinking faculty member is supplying contraceptives to students.

Despite Betty’s efforts to discredit Katherine as well, the student’s clique of friends — among them Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Joan (Julia Stiles) and Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) — grow increasingly to admire the teacher and look to her as a mentor. She prompts them to explore their potential for change, rather than dutifully accepting the traditional views of an institution where education is viewed merely as a stopgap before marriage.

Katherine encourages Joan to apply to Yale Law and indirectly gives dumpy Connie the nerve to pursue romance. When Betty marries during the school term, she expects Joan to follow suit with her adoring fiance (Topher Grace). Shocked to learn Joan is considering a career in law, Betty again pens a damaging editorial, this time charging Katherine with being a subversive influence.

Konner and Lawrence’s script makes too many convenient leaps, particularly when wounded Katherine sways class opinion against Betty’s action with the aid of a few slides showing quintessential ’50s homemaker advertisements. The idea that the students would instinctively grasp the lesson on the domestic shackling of women despite years of conditioning and no exposure to feminist thought seems a facile fabrication.

The action that follows also represents an improbable turnaround, when the now unhappily married Betty bucks against her controlling mother (Donna Mitchell) and suddenly switches to Katherine’s camp. In the concluding stretch, Katherine must decide whether to accept the school’s rigid conditions and stay on or strike out on her own. While it’s not exactly unpredictable up to that point, the final section is like screenwriting by numbers in its orchestration of preprogrammed emotional responses.

In addition, there’s something condescending and “women’s picture” simplistic in the way the male characters are drawn as uniformly weak, from Betty and Joan’s paramours to Paul to Bill (Dominic West), an Italian teacher with whom Katherine becomes involved despite knowledge of his past flings with students.

The central role might have been more convincing with a flintier actress to lend some weight. Roberts gives the character her regular mix of high spirits and vulnerability, which never fully gels with the idealistic, savvy woman; even Katherine’s passion for art is undersold. Every time the actress erupts into her mile-wide smile and rippling laugh, she undermines any integrity in the performance with self-aware movie-star charisma.

The younger cast members generally fare better. Stiles in particular finds a delicate balance between Joan’s prim reserve and a more open, questioning nature; Gyllenhaal radiates sassy intelligence as a provocative Jewish girl in WASP central, refusing to be constrained by peer expectations; Dunst registers strongly in a brittle turn, hardened by the character’s own unhappiness; and likable newcomer Goodwin has touching moments.

On the faculty side, New York legit grande dame Marian Seldes makes a suitably imperious school president, while Marcia Gay Harden creates an amusing caricature of the college’s poise and elocution teacher.

Newell has assembled a classy-looking package. Anastas Michos’ crisp camerawork and buttery lighting capture the hallowed halls of Wellesley and manicured campus grounds to pleasing effect. (In addition to the actual setting, several scenes were shot in stand-in locations at Yale and New York’s Columbia U.) Michael Dennison’s costumes stylishly convey the pristine, pastel ideal of early ’50s womanhood. Rachel Portman’s lush score is used with refreshing economy, mixed with reinterpreted period hits.

Mona Lisa Smile

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures/Revolution Studios presentation of a Red Om production. Produced by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler, Paul Schiff. Executive producer, Joe Roth. Co-producer, Richard Baratta. Directed by Mike Newell. Screenplay, Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Anastas Michos; editor, Mick Audsley; music, Rachel Portman; music supervisor, Randall Poster; production designer, Jane Musky; art director, Patricia Woodbridge; set decorator, Susan Tyson; costume designer, Michael Dennison; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Terence J. O'Mara; second unit director, Paul Schiff; second unit camera, Danny Moder; assistant director, Joseph Reidy; casting, Ellen Chenoweth, Susie Farris. Reviewed at MGM screening room, New York, Dec. 5, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 117 MIN.

With

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 Spencer Jones - Jordan Bridges President Jocelyn Carr - Marian Seldes Mrs. Warren - Donna Mitchell Dr. Edward Staunton - Terence Rigby Susan Delacorte - Laura Allen

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