Wellesley College is a women's college where the best and the brightest women of New England's privileged class come to learn, if not necessarily to think. Mona Lisa Smile is about how the new art history teacher, unmarried Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), asks the young women of that university to reject the oppressive domestic goddess lifestyle that awaits almost all of them after graduation. Of the three students most affected by Watson, Maggie Gyllenhaal's Giselle Levy gets the best lines. The alcohol-swilling, sexually promiscuous rebel she plays feels like a product of the '50s, and Giselle quickly adores finding an older role model in Watson. Julia Stiles does the best work in the film as Joan Brandwyn, who opens up to the possibility that she does not have to marry her sweetheart. Her scene with Roberts after she makes the decision about her future is the best scene in the film because it is the only one in which anybody shows Watson that her beliefs may not be best for everyone. Sadly, the talented Kirsten Dunst as rich bitch Betty Warren is saddled with the worst scenes and the worst dialogue in the film. She suffers simply because she accepts wholeheartedly what she has been spoon-fed from childhood. Her punishment is so total and so extreme that the film becomes little more than a wholehearted acceptance of Watson's world view. That, plus the cartoonish treatment of Marcia Gay Harden as a heartbroken spinster who intensely believes in the importance of properly planned dinner parties, makes Mona Lisa Smile feel like a feminist film made by Wellesley graduates who want you to learn about feminism, but do not ask you to think about it.
by Perry Seibert review