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Friday, December 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
"The Last Samurai," you say? Yes, but it's also "Mona Lisa Smile." Substitute the oak-paneled halls of a 1950s Seven Sisters college for the sweeping landscapes of 19th-century Japan, and it's virtually the same movie, give or take a sword or girdle. Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, a young art history teacher, newly transplanted from the West Coast, who shakes things up at very proper Wellesley College in 1953, encouraging her students during her brief tenure there to develop their own ideas about art and life.
This sits better with some students than with others. Katherine quickly makes an enemy in Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst, her cat eyes flashing), a wealthy young woman busily planning her very conventional life.
Others, like the free-spirited Gisele (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and sharply intelligent Joan (Julia Stiles), are intrigued by the new teacher. And Katherine's personal life is undergoing some changes as well: The boyfriend back home (John Slattery) is pushing marriage, but a handsome Wellesley professor (Dominic West) is intriguing, too.
Directed by Mike Newell (of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" fame) and written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, "Mona Lisa Smile" is that rarity: a film almost entirely about women (the male characters are peripheral at best), written and directed by men. That's not necessarily a problem the male filmmaking team behind "The Hours" pulled it off just fine but here there seems to be an odd idealization, or trivialization, of the characters that makes the movie ultimately unsatisfying.
Roberts whose trademark broad smile bears no resemblance whatsoever to the enigmatic title grin that Katherine discusses with her students isn't particularly challenged by her role, which mostly requires charm and enthusiasm. But we never quite see a crucial sea change in her relationships with the students one day they're against her, another day they're inviting her to parties. The students and the audience must love her, presumably, because she's Julia Roberts; the character doesn't seem fleshed out.
Stiles, speaking in a painfully precise East Coast accent, never relaxes into her role; neither does Dunst, who's a by-the-book meanie. Gyllenhaal brings some warmth to the screen, and some wicked comedy in one party scene, she gets the handsome professor in her crosshairs and sashays over to him, hips swaying like a dinner bell. The camera loves her but doesn't know quite what to do with her; she's practically a stalker by the end of the film.
And Marcia Gay Harden, a wonderful actress (hand her that Oscar for "Mystic River," right now), seems hampered by her role, a Wellesley elocution teacher who also serves as Katherine's landlady. While she finds some nice character details her mouth is always carefully poised, as if formed around a dainty chocolate she's made to be so earnest that she's faintly ridiculous.
Ultimately, "Mona Lisa Smile" backs down from the feminist message Katherine first seems to be giving her students, dissolving into blandness. The film looks terrific, with wonderfully textured '50s costumes and settings, but ultimately it's less like "The Last Samurai" and more like "Something's Gotta Give" a pleasant, fluffy date movie and nothing more.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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