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‘Mona Lisa Smile’ never gets beyond the surface

Julia Roberts stars as a progressive teacher in the 1950s. By John Hartl

Movies about charismatic schoolteachers have won Oscars for Robert Donat (“Goodbye Mr. Chips”) and Maggie Smith (“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”) and nominations for Robin Williams (“Dead Poets Society”), Edward James Olmos (“Stand and Deliver”) and Richard Dreyfuss (“Mr. Holland’s Opus”).

For her work in the shallow but well-cast “Mona Lisa Smile,” Julia Roberts could join their class next month. She plays Katherine Watson, a vibrant art-history teacher, recently graduated from UC Berkeley, who rescues girls at a finishing school for Stepford wives. The setting is Wellesley College in ultra-repressed 1953, when the teachers with tenure are the ones who don’t rock the boat.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t offer much beyond that summary. It’s almost nuance-free, and it doesn’t give Roberts enough to work with. The heroine is just about perfect, as her imperfect lover Bill (Dominic West) points out. And the school’s administrators (led by the imperious Marian Seldes) are diabolically evil.

Katherine’s students are smart but confused, especially Giselle (the scene-stealing Maggie Gyllenhaal), who makes quite a show of drinking and sleeping around, and Betty (Kirsten Dunst) and Joan (Julia Stiles), whose ambitions don’t go much beyond marriage and babies. While they can think for themselves, they need a free-spirited California outsider to tell them they have options.

Promising scenes, good detailsThe opening scenes hold promise, especially Katherine’s first day in school, which turns into a debacle when the students bitchily demonstrate that they know as much about the school’s official art-history textbook as Katherine does. Dazed but undefeated, Katherine starts the next day without a text, breezing her way through a challenging lecture on the nature of art.

Naturally this makes her the most popular teacher on campus -- and the one who most upsets the management of what one character calls “this elitist icebox.” The administrators mock Katherine's interest in modern art, disapprove when the girls are taken on a field trip to examine a Jackson Pollock painting, then threaten her with termination for her “unorthodox” teaching methods.

Crisply directed by Mike Newell, who made “Donnie Brasco” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” the movie gets some things right about the 1950s that period movies rarely do. When the resident lesbian, Amanda (Juliet Stevenson), is fired for endorsing condom use, she points out that she would have been given a mere slap on the wrist five years before.

With just a few lines of dialogue, Stevenson demonstrates that there’s a world of difference between the looser post-war period and paralyzing mid-1950s McCarthyism. “Mona Lisa Smile” ends in 1954, several months before McCarthy would be officially condemned for his tactics, but that event comes too late for some people.

The saddest character here is another teacher, Nancy (memorably played by Marcia Gay Harden), who tries too hard to befriend Katherine. A control freak who dreams of a long-gone boyfriend, she drinks alone in front of her television set, watching game shows and “I Love Lucy,” claiming that she loves Lucy “even if she is a communist.”

John Hartl is the film critic for