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Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Critic

WE'RE TOLD in the opening moments of the gruelingly earnest ``Mona Lisa Smile'' that Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is a bohemian from California (even worse, she hails from the northern part of the state) who has come to Wellesley College - the most conservative college in the nation! - because she wanted to make a difference.

So, we know three things right off the bat: 1) there's going to be a culture clash of epic proportions; 2) Katherine will indeed make a difference, but at a cost; and 3) the story is going to be told in the most patronizing manner possible.

What's strange about this unintentionally hysterical bit of historical revisionism is that director Mike Newell and screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (who have given us such delights as ``Mighty Joe Young,'' ``The Beverly Hillbillies'' and ``Mercury Rising'') might just intend this opening voice-over narration to be a decoy, and, in fact, aspire to go against the grain of the inspiring-teacher-movie genre.

We'll never know. The final product is horribly confused and compromised, craving to be everything to everybody (including a star vehicle for Roberts) and, in the process, winding up no good to no one. The film wants to celebrate nonconformity, but adheres to hoary, Hollywood cliches. It makes its ``subversive,'' proto-feminist teacher into some kind of fashion-plate Joan of Arc but also wants you to know that it's OK not to adhere to expectations, as long you get a trust fund in the bargain.

The material is so addled that it drags down everyone and everything. Newell, usually a director of reliable entertainments like ``Donnie Brasco'' and ``Four Weddings and a Funeral,'' can't even get the period details right, displaying absolutely no understanding for the time or the setting, likely because he was too busy looking at fabric swatches for the actresses' oh-so-chic wardrobes.

The silliness begins the moment Roberts' Miss Jean Brodie knock-off walks into her 1953 Wellesley classroom and is anachronistically assaulted by a bunch of whip-smart sass talk from her charges. Ms. Katherine soon learns to her horror that Wellesley girls may be the best and the brightest, but the college is little more than a finishing school, designed to prepare them for a life of changing diapers, hosting cocktail parties and tending to their husbands' needs.

For Katherine, this won't do. She throws out the syllabus for her art class and starts regaling her students about the wonders of Jackson Pollock's paint droppings. This kind of forward-thinking doesn't sit well with the school's stick-in-the-mud types, including a desperately unhappy student (well-played by Kirsten Dunst), who has bought into WASP-brand materialism and doesn't want her friends corrupted by Katherine's kooky ideas.

This leads to some unintentional homages to that McCarthy-era touchstone ``Invasion of the Body Snatchers'' - Look out! The '50s are turning these girls into pod people! - as well as some uninteresting subplots involving an array of unfaithful men. Dunst, joined by Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden and others, frowns and bears it; only Roberts is afforded (perhaps it was in her contract?) the opportunity to smile. Why? It's a mystery to us.

Glenn Whipp, (818) 713-3672



(PG-13: sexual situations)

Starring: Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Director: Mike Newell.

Running time: 1 hr. 55 min.

Playing: Wide release.

In a nutshell: Miss Jean Brodie battles the Body Snatchers. It's a draw.
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Title Annotation:U; Review
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 19, 2003

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