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Why filmmakers have chosen this particular moment to become fascinated with the Eisenhower era is puzzling. Whatever the case, the latest film to peer back a half-century is "Mona Lisa Smile". Unlike the more ambitious "Far From Heaven", this film from the usually adventurous director Mike Newell is content to recycle familiar thematic ideas about that era's zeal for conformity and the limited options available to women from the social upper crust.

With an all-star cast that includes Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Marcia Gay Harden, the movie should develop shapely legs. However, rote characterizations and a trite, even condescending, attitude toward that era's misguided mores robs the film of the satiric punch Todd Haynes delivered in "Far From Heaven". Newell is in top form, though, moving the story along at a brisk clip and nicely delineating the characters and subplots. But Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal's screenplay lacks any insight into what motivated either the enthusiasm for conformity or the rebellion against those attitudes.

The film's feminist heroine, Katherine Watson (Roberts), journeys from California to the New England campus of Wellesley College in 1953 to teach art history. She labors under the misapprehension that her students, the "best and brightest" young women in the country, seek higher education as a means toward careers. To her horror, she discovers that the primary goal of her charges is to get married.

Her students comprise the female stereotypes of that era: snobbish debutante Betty (Dunst), smart girl Joan (Stiles), bad girl Giselle (Gyllenhaal) and shy wallflower Connie (newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin). The closet lesbian also is represented, albeit as school nurse Amanda (Juliet Stevenson), who has the audacity to hand out contraception to students.

Despite an advanced curriculum at Wellesley, the pivotal class belongs to Katherine's roommate, poise and elocution teacher Nancy Abbey (Harden), a spinster carrying a torch for the fellow who jilted her long ago. Battle lines form quickly. Simply by being over 30 and unmarried, Katherine is labeled "subversive." By teaching Picasso and Jackson Pollack, her class becomes an affront to social orthodoxy.

Katherine and newlywed Betty become immediate enemies because Betty feels threatened by her teacher's feminist independence. Meanwhile, Giselle lives the life Katherine preaches as she smokes cigarettes, dates a male professor (Dominic West) and later a married man. Joan gets caught in the middle when Katherine pushes her to apply to Yale Law School despite an imminent proposal from her boyfriend. Connie actually lands a boyfriend only for mean-spirited Betty to interfere, mostly as a reaction to her own failing marriage.

These mini-soap operas serve mostly to belabor '50s social rigidity. The film's dogged insistence in re-fighting the cultural wars of the '50s without shedding any new light on either side reduces nearly all the characters to shallow mouthpieces for predictable points of view.

Roberts' Katherine is much too strident to gain much sympathy despite her "modern" attitudes. Katherine at least is shown in an unflattering light as she holds up impossible standards for any male suitor to meet and has a stubborn streak. Gyllenhaal gets to steal the show as the bad girl -- bad girls usually do. Dunst and Stiles enliven but cannot deepen their cliched characters. Goodwin manages touching moments as the lovelorn Connie.

Cinematography, art and costumes splendidly celebrate the early-'50s look without completely mocking the era. The one period element the film revels in is a fine collection of '50s pop tunes that bridge scenes and punctuate all that was lively and hip in that era.

MONA LISA SMILE

Columbia Pictures

Revolution Studios presents a Red Om Films production

Credits:

Director: Mike Newell

Screenwriters: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal

Producers: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler, Paul Schiff

Executive producer: Joe Roth

Director of photography: Anastas N. Michos

Production designer: Jane Musky

Music: Rachel Portman

Costume designer: Michael Dennison

Editor: Mick Audsley

Cast:

Katherine Watson: Julia Roberts

Betty: Kirsten Dunst

Joan: Julia Stiles

Giselle: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Connie: Ginnifer Goodwin

Bill: Dominic West

Amanda: Juliet Stevenson

Nancy: Marcia Gay Harden

President Carr: Marian Seldes

Running time -- 119 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13


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