According to director Mike Newell, “Mona Lisa Smile” is not a chick flick, it’s “just a movie.” But you wonder if any guy out there would agree after sitting through two solid hours of feminist preaching from none other than Julia Roberts.
With a cast dominated by glamorous femmes and the dialogue centered on the issue of marriage vs. career, the temptation to call it “heavily chick-oriented” is overwhelming. The big distinction between this and other tales of female empowerment is that it’s set in 1953, when feminism was still spanking new and totally freakoid. (Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” was published in the United States that very year.) Back then, feminist jargon/slogans had yet to be constructed and the movie’s best moments show the women struggling over terms like “free-thinking individual” in relation to their own lives. Unequipped with the right words, Julia Roberts’ character is forced to repeat the same (and rather lame) line a couple of times with a sort of desperate pleading: “Girls, you can bake your cake and eat it too!” Tell that to Simone.
Roberts stars as subversive bohemian art-history teacher Katherine Watson, who leaves her native Berkley, Calif., to teach at the bastion of female intelligence and womanly conservatism: Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Having traversed the continent — fired by a need to “make a difference” — her arrival at the picturesque New England campus is tinged with disappointment.
Katherine discovers that most of her students see college as a launchpad for big, fat weddings, followed by the purchase of the fully automated washing machine. This, after all, is the early 1950s, when women all across America were being spoon-fed the virtues of homemaking and family-raising. Katherine rises to meet the challenge of making Wellesley girls see the light, but is discouraged by the likes of rich-bitch-encased-in-crinoline Betty Warren (a strangely doughy-looking Kirsten Dunst). Betty trashes the new art-history instructor in the school paper, mainly by alluding to her unwed status and exhorting the students not to “end up” like her.
Prissy Betty is engaged to a Harvard stiff (as her well-pedigreed mother had been) and extols the advantages of love and marriage in a way that’s almost fanatical. While sparring with this nemesis, Katherine sets her sights on directing Joan (Julia Stiles) on the right path of an independent career. Joan has potential but is slippery — she has been accepted at Yale Law School, but is just as keen on marriage and family.
And so the academic year goes by: Katherine teaches her students the value of freedom, independence — and the exciting contemporary art scene (one of the best moments is when they’re lined up in front of a Jackson Pollock in awesome contemplation) while she in turn has opportunities for putting her theories into practice.
After refusing the marriage proposal of her old boyfriend in California, she takes up with an Italian professor (Dominic West) in what turns out to be an extremely modern relationship: They enjoy sex with no strings attached, and afterward she lounges on his sofa completely relaxed, flaunting her artistically tousled hair.
But this is where the whole problem of “Mona Lisa Smile” is located: In a movie where everyone else is uniformly dressed in full skirts and sporting tight perms, Katherine alone is glaringly contemporary, like she just stepped off the set of “Ocean’s Eleven” without bothering to change her makeup. While Betty seems pathetically repressed behind her prosperous-bride facade and Joan has moments of deliberately suppressing her intelligence to please her boyfriend, Katherine glides by, unencumbered by the restraints and dilemmas that were surely a big part of womanhood in the ’50s.
It would have made more sense if she had been time-warped from the present day to that earlier era, with a mission to show everyone what a great time women will be able to have five decades into the future. The most authentic character is Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), Katherine’s housemate and the “poise instructor” at Wellesley.
Nancy has lost her fiance in the war and now lives as a recluse in a house crammed with chintz and frilly knickknacks, her days revolving around meals, solitary drinking and TV. Nancy’s unhappiness is devastating because of her unawareness (or denial) of it — and it’s easy to hate Katherine when she tries (oh-so-gently) to persuade Nancy to go out on a Friday night. Nancy is terrified by the prospect (which is understandable when you’re a spinster in a ’50s college town) and Katherine gives in with a pitying smile whereupon the scene becomes a tableau of the modern, liberated woman patronizing a sister trapped in the dark ages.
What redeems “Mona Lisa Smile” is the ending — contrary to expectations, there are no easy triumphs or nuptial ceremonies to round things off. Katherine finally seems a bit more human and a little less like a displaced 21st-century movie star. A kind of resigned sadness has crept into her face, displacing the sheen of arrogance that characterized her earlier close-ups. By this time she’s stopped dispensing the nuggets of feminist wisdom and the story gradually arrives at a conclusion of sorts: something about how few women there were who got to bake their cake and eat it too — but that the rest were no less deserving of respect.