Main cast: Julia Roberts (Katherine Watson), Kirsten Dunst (Betty Warren), Julia Stiles (Joan Brandwyn), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Giselle Levy), Ginnifer Goodwin (Connie Baker), and Dominic West (Bill Dunbar)
Director: Mike Newell
Why are they comparing this movie to Dead Poets Society? Dead Poets Society at least has a consistent message that makes it eminently enjoyable. Mona Lisa Smile, a feminist “teacher” movie, relies on so many stereotypical characters and plot elements that it ends up feeling like an amateur high school interpretation on life and the way it is.
Set in the 1950s, it all starts when our unorthodox, unmarried single teacher Katherine Watson descends upon the New England Wellesley College and teaches the girls – and the staff – a thing or two about Feminism as Hollywood sees it. She encounters cardboard cutouts like Betty Warren (shrew because she doesn’t want to have sex and enjoy the single life), Joan (not sure what she wants to do), Giselle (slut and as a result so going to hell – apparently modern women can have sex, but not too much sex… or something), and Connie (fat – eeuw, must be made pretty so that she can be a feminist too!). Can Katherine manage to pulverize at least some two-dimensionality into these students?
The script is not without some good and valid scenes, such as when Katherine tries to get her students to think beyond the accepted conventional roles enforced on women in that era or when she realizes that she too has to accept that being a wife is a valid choice for a woman. Unfortunately, in between these scenes, the movie pads in hackneyed depictions of women in one-dimensional Bitch, Slut, Wallflower, and Good Girl clichés in predictable B-plots that are resolved in spectacularly unimaginative manners. Julia Roberts is decent in her role but it is Maggie Gyllenhaal that manages to leave an impression on me. Gyllenhaal manages to give her underwritten one-note character Giselle some depths that resonate merely from her presence and subtle acting. In comparison, the usually good Kirsten Dunst plays a one-dimensional bitch in an overwrought manner, which makes her character’s too-abrupt change of heart later in the movie even more unconvincing than ever.
The pace is very slow, and with its annoyingly derivative script padded with too many predictable elements, this movie, despite whatever good intentions it harbors, feels like an interminable TV movie from hell.