Katherine Watson (Roberts) is a Berkeley bohemian transplanted to the august firmament of Wellesley College circa 1953. A bastion for proper, wealthy womanhood, Wellesley promises the creme de la créme in brainy American girlhood.
But Watson discovers a Stepfordian secret inside this supposed hive of she-power. The brilliant students who outwit her on the first day of class and have the brittle exoskeletons of old guard upper crusts have no higher aspiration than a MRS. degree.
"It's a finishing school disguised as a college!" Watson screams with a horror to rival Invasion of the Body Snatchers' exclamation "They're here!"
The queen bee among the students is Betty (Kirsten Dunst), the vituperative daughter of a powerful Wellesley alum. When not preparing for her own wedding, she writes scathing editorials in the student paper denouncing the school nurse for distributing birth control, or Watson for bringing her new-fangled California-style feminism to the East Coast.
The film starts out strong, showing Watson's battles with the Wellesley students, who contest her view of modern art as unproven, unpedigreed bunk. The film shows how culture can be a means of social control: The girls are unwilling to wager any opinion that has not been already confirmed by their class's tastemakers.
By offering up something untested, modern art threatens to upset that balance. The girls are forced to trust their very unfeminine gut instincts.
But as Mona Lisa Smile soldiers on, its view of liberated womanhood becomes increasingly cloudy -- the biggest failure in the film is Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), who teaches speech and poise at Wellesley but has no man and serves as the film's comic relief. If marriage is not a woman's end-all, why is the most conspicuously unmarried woman in the film depicted as such a goosey-headed sadsack?
The film has chosen a safe approach to feminism by being set in the Eisenhower-era '50s. Rather than paint a historically complicated picture of the post-war malaise that propelled people into the emotional safety zone of cake baking and baby making, the film makes the '50s look like a pastel-colored "Twilight Zone."
It's too bad Watson's fight-the-power resolve melts when she falls for the student-fucking Italian professor (Dominic West). Suddenly, the film takes a detour from social critique to fireside snuggles, with Roberts' famous hair unfurled and grin unleashed.
How relevant is Mona Lisa's brand of feminism today? Not very. Its clarion call to women to get their noses out of the Frigidaire and get a life is antiquated to say the least. If a recent New York Times magazine expose is to be believed, things have come full circle. Privileged women are now so fed up with the relentless grind of the work place, they are giving up their careers for the elemental pleasures of baby raising. And while the film purports to pooh-pooh the '50s struggle for the prized engagement ring, it spends a good one-third of its energies following the fits and starts of the romantic entanglements of its entire cast, including the brilliant pre-law school student (Julia Stiles), the unloved fat girl (Ginnifer Goodwin) and the Jewish seductress (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Mona Lisa Smile is a crazy quilt of intersecting love stories that in the end, like the recent mad-about-the-man Sylvia, affirms the Hollywood convention (straight out of the '50s) that men are very much the center of every woman's life.