Let's get one thing straight right away: Julia Roberts does not have a Mona Lisa smile. Mona Lisa's smile is subtle and enigmatic, suggesting some secret knowledge that exists just below the surface. Roberts' smile is wide and toothy, suggesting a warm personality that bubbles right over the surface. That's not to say one is better, just to point out that comparing Julia Roberts (especially her smile) to the Mona Lisa is a fallacy.
None of this really has much to do with Roberts' film, Mona Lisa Smile, although it's indicative of the way the film keeps trying to make connections that just aren't there. Roberts stars as Katherine Watson, fresh out of grad school and a new art-history professor at prestigious women's college Wellesley in 1953.
Berkeley-educated Katherine hopes to teach future feminist leaders, but instead she finds that Wellesley is full of smart, young women preparing themselves for marriage. She encounters four girls who represent the various stereotypes the movie would like to explore: Snobby legacy student Betty (Kirsten Dunst) is prim, proper and about to be married. Bad girl Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the product of a broken home and has affairs with professors and married men. Intelligent Joan (Julia Stiles) is on the marriage track, too, but harbors secret ambitions to attend law school. And chubby Connie (excellent newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin) is a cello-playing loser who can't get a date.
Of course, they don't take too kindly to this unconventional new teacher, who schools them on modern art and modern feminism. Of course, they eventually warm to her, and teach her as much as she teaches them. It's the Dead Poets Society formula, although that wasn't the first or only movie to feature an inspirational teacher imparting life lessons. Roberts is miscast as the feminist iconoclast, her smile only the tip of the iceberg, but the supporting cast is strong, even with Dunst going a little overboard on her upper-crust accent.
The movie's problem lies in throwing around words like "subversive" and "progressive" to describe Katherine without ever convincingly demonstrating those qualities. Director Mike Newell tries to make a profound film that challenges the social standards of the 1950s, but all he does is throw some stereotypes up against some other stereotypes. The result is a film that feels afraid to commit, meandering through several plot lines to a dissatisfying conclusion.