Say Cheese

Stiles of the rich and famous: Julia II with the other proud housewives (or single adventurers?) of 'Mona Lisa Smile'
Sony Pictures Entertainment

In the wake of his former collaborator Richard Curtis's ode to love (actual) and tits (fake), director Mike Newell attempts a far more complicated task: making Julia Roberts believable as a 1950s art history instructor at Wellesley. Sure, Roberts is convincingly smart, and she looks the period in her dowdy bohemian blouses and skirts. The question is whether she and we are ready for her to ditch gamine and become mature advisor to the next crop of students/stars (e.g., Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Julia Stiles). Will we love the elder Julia for her wrinkled brow as much as we loved her for her coltish beauty? In this A Girl's Own Dead Artists Society, Dunst, Gyllenhaal, and Stiles are finally asked to fall like loving flowers before their teacher. Dare I say that the homage seems a bit forced?

Roberts's Katherine Watson has been hired out of California to teach introductory art history to Wellesley's conservative female student body. Her students, jarringly for the year 1953, are sassy and arrogant; they're also, oddly, seniors (finally getting around to that last requirement, perhaps?). Put off by their know-it-all-ness, Katherine switches the standard syllabus to concentrate on Picasso and Pollock, and encourages one student, Joan (Stiles), to apply to Yale Law School. Soon Katherine is labeled "subversive," especially by Betty Warren (Dunst), an editorializing, freshly married priss whose mother (Donna Mitchell, doing Florence Henderson as a prison guard) runs the powerful alumni association. The Warrens are on a roll, having just gotten the school nurse fired for distributing contraception (and for being a lesbian--though the L word is never spoken).

Roberts plays the movie's first half tense and nearly mousy, her thin face overwhelmed with nose and mouth. Then Newell gives Katherine a pratfall--for no other reason than to cite that patented look of post-pratfall bemusement. From then on, Roberts turns on the megawattage, as if she had suddenly realized that these pups were serious about replacing her in the hearts and minds of American moviegoers. And serious they are. Though the character of Joan zigzags between freakish composure and friendly giddiness, Stiles gamely keeps up. And Gyllenhaal, endowing her ethnic loose-woman caricature with fierce intelligence, emotion, and generosity, pretty much steals the movie. Which is unfortunate, because the movie doesn't know what to do with her.

Newell and writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal have intriguingly centered their film on that postwar moment when government, advertising, and old-fashioned sexism united to push middle-class women out of the wartime workforce and into suburban track homes. Betty and her mother fly this reactionary flag; Katherine is the liberal who predictably says, "You can have both"--that is, children and a career. The dramatic and startlingly spiteful cutting contests between Katherine and Dunst's Betty make the spine of the movie; it'll surprise no one that Spider-Man's girlfriend capitulates in the end. (Whose name is at the top of the bill?) And yet the movie never resolves its central conflict: The characters either become proud housewives or single adventurers/careerists.

And the latter always run the risk of sinking into TV-watching spinsterdom à la Katherine's housemate Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), a single teacher of married etiquette. Harden's Nancy is a marvel of bitter satisfaction. The girls' "funny, chubby friend" (Ginnifer Goodwin) is haunted by her, and so is the movie. Funny thing is, the men in this movie are all boys (playing dress-up in suits!). Not one of them seems a match for these women, probably because no male actor of any stature would play second fiddle to female actors. Dear Kirsten, Maggie, and Julia II: Welcome to post-'50s female megastardom--a future of brides (Pretty Woman) or single careerists (Erin Brockovich), and a lonely name temporarily at the top of the bill.

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