Like a starlet in a Melrose Avenue boutique shopping for vintage fashions, Mona Lisa Smile wears the 1950s like a funky sweater twinset covering toned abs and a navel ring: The movie’s a Vanity Fair cover shoot posing as a feminist lesson for postfeminist moviegoers who never understood the big whoop about keeping one’s name after marriage. It’s a gussied-up sorority-of-rising-stars project produced, I fantasize, by baby-boomer studio guys whose younger spouses articulately defend a woman’s right to stay home and raise the kids.
Hoo boy, I’m just getting started. The setting is Wellesley College, Eisenhower era, when the goal of any normal girl was marriage. Period. Or so goes the simplistic premise of this addled, Bush-era moral tale, a reduction of big, vital ’50s issues into a no-carb pudding of ideas by writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, directed (as if by a Martian landed at a Seven Sisters college) by Mike Newell. For Betty (Kirsten Dunst), the traditionalist alpha girl in a klatch of dormitory-mates who each represent a type rather than embody a person, marriage to a suitable society catch is all she and her monster mother dream of, never mind that incipient rat-finkdom flashes across the society fiancé’s face.
The only thing that would make the horrid domesticity even rosier is if Betty could swap recipes with her best friend, Joan (Julia Stiles), as a wifey-in-arms; Joan is engaged to a swell, square fellow (Topher Grace), and all signs point to ”I do,” except for Joan’s small problem that she’s brainy and harbors a flickering interest in law school. Connie (”Ed”’s Ginnifer Goodwin) believes that because she’ s a gawky scholarship student who plays the cello, no man will ever love her. And Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) believes — or rather, Konner and Rosenthal deduce, unsubtly — that because she’s Jewish on a campus of WASPs, and therefore sophisticated, self-destructive, alluring, and screwed-up, she’s free to enjoy sex with older men. (Gyllenhaal has a great time playing the whore of Mensa.)
Clearly, these girls need an education in 2003 womanly options. That’s where Julia Roberts comes in — a Gen-X superstar bestowing smiles on her Gen-Y colleagues as Katherine Watson, a freethinking art history professor. Katherine is in her prime, like Miss Jean Brodie. She’s a cookie-cutter original, one of those damn colorful teachers disliked by the rest of the faculty because she drinks at town bars. Katherine arrives, bringing little more than a box of slides that include — gasp — modern art. She leaves behind a great guy, played thanklessly by John Slattery, and picks up a faculty rake, played thanklessly by Dominic West. She causes trouble. She makes her students look at Jackson Pollock drip painting while Roberts assumes expressions of sensitivity to complement her fabulous wardrobe of bohemian jewelry.
Katherine doubtless wouldn’t give her students a grade, preferring that they write their own pass-fail self-evaluation. At EW, though, we’re old-school.