In 1953, a time when women's roles were rigidly defined, free-spirited, novice art history professor Katherine Watson begins teaching at the prestigious all-female Wellesley College--which despite its academic reputation, is an environment where success is measured by 'how well' the students marry. Encouraging these women to strive for a more enlightened future, Watson challenges the administration and inspires her students to look beyond the image of what is, and consider the possibilities of what could be--contrary to popular belief.
"You can bake your cake and eat it too!" goes the reassuring slogan that distills the comfy revisionist feminism in "Mona Lisa Smile." Like "Down With Love" earlier this year, this movie preaches disruptive female self-empowerment out of one side of its mouth, and apologizes for its nerve out of the other. Julia Roberts, miscast but charming nonetheless, is a free-spirited Californian who moves East to teach art history at demure, snooty Wellesley College in 1953 and shakes up the place enough to be deemed subversive. Appalled to discover that her brilliant, privileged students have no post-graduate ambitions beyond marrying and settling down, she preaches emancipation. A star-watcher's guilty pleasure, the movie rubs together three of Hollywood's brightest younger stars, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal, all playing students who have different reactions. — Stephen Holden
2003-12-19 | Stephen Holden | Read the New York Times Review of Mona Lisa Smile