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Mona Lisa Smile

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Mona Lisa Smile

Starring: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst
Director: Mike Newell
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 117 Minutes
Release Date: December 2003
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, John Slattery, Marcia Gay Harden, Topher Grace, Laura Allen, James Callahan

Review by Susan Granger
3 stars out of 4

As a teacher who plants the seeds of rebellion, Julia Roberts evokes the spirit if not the soul of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969) with a nod to the "Dead Poets Society" (1989) too.

It's 1953 when free-spirited Katherine Watson (Julia) arrives from Berkeley, California, to teach art history at Wellesley College. She's eager to encourage her affluent, intelligent students to pursue careers not husbands - a subversively bohemian concept that falls on deaf ears, particularly when bitchy influential blueblood Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) marries mid-semester and even brainy Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) can't wrap her mind around balancing Yale Law School and WASPy matrimony. "I thought I was headed to a place that would turn out tomorrow's leaders, not their wives," wails Katherine, who wants to make a difference but, at first, only the unabashedly sensual Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) seems to get the message.

Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal and directed by Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral"), this dated coming-of-age-drama grapples with female empowerment, but the oppressively provincial era that's depicted seems more '40s than '50s - and, over the years, Wellesley College has nurtured admirably independent feminists, including Hillary Clinton.

While incandescent Julia Roberts radiates polish and passion, Kirsten Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin and Maggie Gyllenhaal deliver richly detailed, affecting performances as Marcia Gay Harden deftly steals scenes as a dowdy etiquette teacher. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Mona Lisa Smile" is a poignant if stodgy 7. It's a potent chick-flick that strives to prove the career vs. family issue is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

Copyright 2003 Susan Granger

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