I hate Julia Roberts just as much as any other discriminating viewer of quality cinema. In fact, Roberts' latest film, Mona Lisa Smile, had all the makings of a film I would hate: the star-studded cast of budding starlets and, even more, Roberts in the leading role of a film with supposed feminist undertones.
Moreover, it looked like an easy knockoff of Dead Poets' Society--this time for the girls, right? Hardly. Roberts, like Robin Williams in his Dead Poets' professor role, is the new teacher on the block at Wellesley College in 1953. Her newfangled West Coast-style of teaching, again like Williams', is hardly accepted in such a patrician environment. But that's where the similarities between Dead Poets' and Mona Lisa stop.
On a campus of women obsessed with the high-society traditions of their upper class upbringings, the unmarried Roberts is not only challenged for her teaching style, but because of her bare ring finger. Playing an art history professor, Roberts' character attempts to show the know-it-all Wellesley girls that learning about art isn't about regurgitating what is written down in textbooks. Instead, she tries to show her less-than-doting pupils that judging art is a subjective process. Her lesson is lost in the young girls' obsessive pursuit to become house-arrested wives.
Kirsten Dunst delivers a fine performance as a mud-slinging, Wellesley legacy who militantly resists Roberts' bohemian ideals. Dunst leads the pack of traditional Wellesley girls, with Julia Stiles as a student torn between her law school dreams and her inevitable marriage. Maggie Gyllenhaal, never one to take a traditional role, masterfully plays a student who sleeps with teachers, takes birth control pills and quickly admires Roberts for her progressive ideals.
While a good movie, Mona Lisa Smile can seem bogged down with Roberts' relentless attempts at inundating her students with her feminist ideas -- again and again she marches into the classroom and demands the girls' allegiance to her beliefs. It's frustrating to watch, perhaps because it seems odd to see Roberts in a role where she smiles less than she cries, and laughs less than she looks shocked. Regardless, she leads in a film that takes an accurate look at the subservient roles dutifully assumed by women in the 1950s, and how challenging those roles was viewed as revolutionary, objectionable and truly un-ladylike.