Chalked large from the start, you can spot director Mike Newell's lesson plan from a mile off. It's Dead Poets Society with a girl-power agenda. Now call us churlish, but shouldn't an attack on paint-by-numbers conformism be a little more than an obvious formula-flick?
See, while Newell has fun milking cheap chuckles out of rigid matrons and tardy etiquette lessons, there's no whisp of Sirkian satire sidling in behind Mona Lisa Smile's nostalgic cinematography. In fact, behind the camouflage of lovely costume design and striking art direction lies something rather hollow and confused.
Mona gets off to a decent start, though, Roberts attempting to carpe diem her students - a superb young female acting ensemble - away from the college's repressive regime while trying to reconcile her own life-longings. Kirsten Dunst is terrific as the starch-souled bitch who has lessons to learn. Julia Stiles looks the picture of composure, '50s-style, while Maggie Gyllenhaal impresses with another textured performance as wounded sexpot Giselle. Good also is newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin. She plays Connie. The obligatory podgy one.
Yes, the podgy one. The starlets - - and other sparky support like Marcia Gay Harden - - fill stereotypical slivers instead of evolving roles. It's a treatment as reductive and imprisoning as the '50s conformity that the movie thinks it's satirising. Severing each of the girl's subplots just as they threaten to add emotional ballast to the sudsy melodrama, the movie hangs its hat on Roberts. She, though, is more blank canvas than classical enigma.
Mona Lisa Smile? Her trademark beam has always been more like a shiny axe wound cracked across her face. But strip the sass (Erin Brockovich) and make-up (Ocean's Eleven), and Roberts' star wattage goes dim (see Mary Reilly for more on that). So much for the subversive feminist, too - - after lecturing her pupils on progressive independence, Watson duly capitulates to the dopey advances of caddish Italian professor Dominic West. And by the finish, missing an assured script and vibrant central charisma, it can't even decide what its message is. Trite stuff, though the cast alone will convince many to grin and bear it.