Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) arrives at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 to teach art history. She's a bohemian from Berkeley, an idealist who, we're told, "wanted to make a difference." In case you missed it the first time, Katherine says it again: "I want to make a difference." This is not going to be easy, because, according to "Mona Lisa Smile," Wellesley College 50 years ago was little more than a finishing school run for, and by, snippety East Coast snobs. The girls--especially the viperous blonde Betty (Kirsten Dunst)--are eager to cut this interloper down to size. Not enlightened like the proto-feminist Ms. Watson, all they really care about is landing a spouse and becoming model housewives for their powerful WASP husbands. Guess what? The free-thinking Julia melts their East Coast frost with her West Coast independence, shows them the error of their ways and teaches them there is more to life than preparing cocktails for their men.
What can one say about a movie that celebrates nonconformity by conforming to every Hollywood cliche in the book? Why must all movies about favorite teachers strike the same elegiac chord en route to the hero's coronation? The movie's cartoon notions of the '50s and snooty Easterners say more about Hollywood cluelessness than about the period the film condescends to. The way the girls brazenly humiliate Katherine their first day in class is just one of many glaringly anachronistic details. And if Wellesley was such a stodgy bastion of anti-intellectualism, how did Vladimir Nabokov end up on the faculty in the '40s?
The solid cast does what it can with the cut-and-dried material. Maggie Gyllenhaal is the self-destructive party girl (her open drinking would never have been tolerated); Julia Stiles, the smart girl who stifles her own ambitions for convention's sake; Marcia Gay Harden, the prissy, pathetic professor of poise and elocution, and Dominic West, the womanizing Italian prof our heroine takes as a temporary lover.
What drew the usually astute Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Donnie Brasco") to this project? There are hints that the script (credited to Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner) may once have had more shadings--a suggestion that Katherine's idealism is a form of power-tripping; that she's afraid of intimacy--but any ambiguity is quickly brushed aside to make way for the Julia lovefest. Newell, no hack, tries not to milk the cliches shamelessly, and that may be the movie's final undoing. Lacking the courage of its own vulgarity, "Mona Lisa Smile" is as tepid as old bathwater.