Directed by Mike Newell, starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin and Marcia Gay Harden.
Julia Roberts heads up a quality cast of younger generation actresses in 'Mona Lisa Smile', an unabashed - and unashamedly predictable - chick flick from a director who is capable of far better. Veteran Mike Newell has in the past demonstrated his versatility with films ranging from intense mobster dramas ('Donnie Brasco') to air-traffic control comedies ('Pushing Tin') and by directing Richard Curtis' first attempt at revitalising the British film industry ('Four Weddings and a Funeral'). Here he helms a well-intentioned but obvious film that only serves to undermine the ideas of individuality and feminism it purports to celebrate.
Opening in a very stylised 1953, bohemian art history teacher Katherine Watson (Roberts) arrives at the prestigious female-only Wellesley College (whose real-life alumnae include Hillary Rodham Clinton and Madeleine Albright) in New England. Expecting to prepare brilliant young women for high-flying careers, Katherine is disgusted to find that the institution is, "A finishing school, disguised as a college. I thought I was heading to a place that would turn out tomorrow's leaders, not their wives."
Progressive and free-thinking, she rapidly comes into conflict with the conservative Wellesley administration and also has to contend with her students, a selection of precocious, intelligent and very well-bred young ladies. There's class bitch and upholder of tradition Betty (Dunst), the brilliant Joan (Stiles), studying pre-law with a view to getting married, good-time girl Giselle (Gyllenhaal) and the token shy and retiring 'fattie' Connie (Goodwin).
'Mona Lisa Smile' is just another variation on the tried, tested and tired 'Teacher Who Changed My Life' theme, a female version of 'Dead Poets Society' - there's even a "Captain, My Captain" moment with a paint-by-numbers of van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'. Unfortunately it's all been done much better before and Roberts' Watson is an unconvincing addition to a pantheon of teachers that includes Robin Williams' John Keating ('Dead Poets Society'), Sidney Poitier's Mark Thackeray ('To Sir, With Love') and, particularly, Maggie Smith's Jean Brodie ('The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie').
There are good performances from current Hollywood royalty Dunst, Stiles and Gyllenhaal and newcomer Goodwin shows her mettle, but the actresses are unable to rise above the one-dimensional screenplay which, contrary to its pretensions of individuality, has them pegged as stereotypes from the outset. While Marcia Gay Harden makes the most of her role as a lonely deportment teacher, Julia Roberts is left at sea with the confused script, which never really seems to know what 'message' it wants to ram down cinema-goers' throats.
This waste of a competent director and talented cast makes 'Mona Lisa Smile' an experience that is more frustrating than entertaining. Unlikely to turn up in anyone's history books.