Smile stars Julia Roberts as Katherine Watson, a new teacher who has accepted a position to teach art history at Wellesley - the all women college in Massachusetts. Much to her dismay, the progressive thinking taught in California is not embraced by the stiff administrators at Wellesley, and prompts comments like, "You didn't come to Wellesley to help people find their way, you came to help people find your way."
It's not just the faculty that finds Katherine's methods unacceptable. At first, her students refuse to go along with Watson's free thinking ideas because they have already read the course textbook and syllabus, and think that the textbook contains everything they need to know. Once the students have finished the textbook, they think they should spend their time outside of class smoking, drinking and planning their weddings. When one of Katherine's students, Betty (Kirsten Dunst) gets married, it suddenly becomes clear to Katherine that her pupils see their education a way to pass their time until they are married. Katherine is amazed by the girls' ingrained notions that a woman's first duty is to her husband and family.
This enrages Katherine, and against the wishes of her superiors, she challenges her students to reject the norm, and follow a path of their own choosing. When another one of her students, Joan (Julia Stiles) expresses an interest in attending law school, Katherine practically fills out the applications for her. Katherine even recognizes the free-spirited lifestyle led by a student named Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) as her choice, despite the nasty rumors and comments her behavior invokes.
It takes some time, but Katherine's persistence does eventually reach the girls. Yet, the main problem with Mona Lisa Smile is that Katherine refuses to accept any choices made that are contrary to hers. When Joan changes her mind about law school, and chooses instead to get married and move to Philadelphia, Katherine shows up with applications to law schools in Philadelphia. Unwilling to accept her choice, Katherine gives Joan a half-hearted hug, and a resentful accolade. In another scene, Katherine's roommate and Wellesley etiquette teacher (Marcia Gay Harden) chooses to watch television rather than going out dancing on a Friday night. Katherine reluctantly joins her on the couch. How can we support Katherine's passion for change and free thinking when she herself cannot embrace the independent choices that others make?
Fortunately, though Smile lacks key character development unlike the superior (and similar) Dead Poets Society, it does show a great 1950s period piece. Director Mike Newell's strict attention to early fifties culture and mores provides a strikingly realistic, and often funny note. Almost every scene features a particular nuance from percolators and black and white game shows, to birth control controversies and leg crossing etiquette. This is finely complemented by his female cast, each of whom skillfully dresses the part.
I really wanted to like Mona Lisa Smile for the way it encourages women to think for themselves, and make the choices that only they feel are best. And maybe with a stronger lead character, that message would have resonated louder. Instead, all I learned was a bunch of boring lessons in etiquette.
There's that smile they keep talking about.
Run time: 117 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th December 2003
Box Office USA: $63.7M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Releasing
Production compaines: Revolution Studios
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 35%
Fresh: 52 Rotten: 97
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Mike Newell
Starring: Julia Roberts as Katherine Ann Watson, Kirsten Dunst as Betty Warren, Julia Stiles as Joan Brandwyn, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Giselle Levy, Ginnifer Goodwin as Constance Baker, Topher Grace as Tommy Donegal, Dominic West as Bill Dunbar, Taylor Roberts as Louise, Juliet Stevenson as Amanda Armstrong, Marcia Gay Harden as Nancy Abbey, Tori Amos as Wedding Singer