Time: 117 mins.
SYNOPSIS: Set in 1953, Katherine Watson (Roberts) is a free-spirited graduate of UCLA who accepts a teaching post at Wellesley College, a women-only school where the students are torn between the repressive mores of the time and their longing for intellectual freedom.
BOTTOM LINE: I was happy about two things after watching this film: that it was over and that I was born in the last half of the 20th century. While MONA LISA SMILE visually immerses you in the past, it does very little exploring beneath the obvious surface issues it's trying to expound upon. Which is a real shame considering the wealth of talent involved in the project. Julia Roberts may not be everyone's favorite actress, but she's perfectly cast here as the free-thinking teacher who tries to broaden her students exceedingly narrow perspectives about their future roles in society. Her inherent personality is too modern for her to play a pure period role, which is why her casting works so well here. Her character believes that she's going to be teaching young women who want to rule the world. Unfortunately, she finds them more interested in having the perfect family than in having it all.
She's disgusted by their conformity to the rules of society and that these bright young women are using their education to find a husband instead of a career. What she comes to realize is that her goals of freedom and equality for women aren't shared by all and that for many women getting married and having a family is a happy choice, not a last resort. While any discussion that helps women come to terms with their very complicated place in society (especially in these times when we're supposed to be able to do it all), this film, while rich in period detail, lacks true character or subject depth. All that's ever settled on is that women should be able to choose the life that makes them happy, whether that be as a single career girl or happy homemaker. What a startling revelation. Good acting and lovely art direction saves this from being a complete waste of time, though I'd recommend watching when it's free.