In Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile, Julia Roberts flashes her own famous smile whenever our spirits start to sink, and suddenly we realize that, no matter how bad things were for women in the '50s, the '60s were right around the corner. She's playing Katherine Watson, a bohemian from California who's been hired to teach art history at Wellesley College, which is less an institution of higher learning than a finishing school for girls soon to become wives. It's 1953, and Rosie the Riveter has been replaced by Suzy Homemaker, but Miss Watson has other plans for her bright young students. She wants to open their eyes to the world of possibility just outside Wellesley's ivy-covered walls, and the tool with which she plans to open those eyes is modern art. For this, she is hounded by the college's administrators, who do everything but haul her up before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
And yet she prevails, as so many cinematic pedagogues before her have prevailed, from Peter O'Toole's Mr. Chips to Robin Williams' John Keating. Mona Lisa Smile follows the Dead Poets Society template to a tee, only, instead of poetry, these not-so-dangerous minds are devoted to holy matrimony. However true or not true that may have been 50 years ago, it does give the movie something to fret over, and you can forgive the Hollywood touches by reminding yourself how few movies these days even purport to care about what happens to an entire generation of women. Alas, these particular women are so stereotypical they might as well have labels pinned to their pleated skirts. There's the rich bitch (Kirsten Dunst), the desperate slut (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the lawyer wannabe (Julia Stiles) and the sweet-but-chubby girl (Ginnifer Goodwin). Basically, it's The Group, minus the lesbian.
Actually, there is a lesbian -- the school nurse, who gets fired for dispensing birth-control aids. We could accuse the movie of stacking the deck against Wellesley, so dire are the consequences for either stepping out of line or falling in line. Marcia Gay Harden plays Miss Abbey, a woman who, though not quite old enough to be called a spinster, hides her increasing bitterness behind a faÃade of poise and elocution, qualities she's paid to pass on to Wellesley's students. An Emily Post gorgon, she's a caricature of what they're supposed to become -- unless they succumb to Miss Watson's charms, that is. And who wouldn't? The woman even turns them on to Jackson Pollock, who might as well be the devil, so far from their world are his drip paintings. You'd never know from watching Mona Lisa Smile that Pollock had been on the cover of Life magazine four years before Miss Watson ever set foot on campus.
Life appears to have passed them by.