Mona Lisa Smile

You are in for a good time if you go to see “Mona Lisa Smile,” particularly if you enjoy films about cold, catty women who lie constantly. (Don’t worry; what few men there are in the film are dishonest, too.) If you like the dour, porcelain-faced Julia Stiles, you will be pleased to know she appears just as humorless and grumpy here as she typically does, and if you are a fan of Julia Roberts’ huge, horse-like head and her equally equine braying laugh, rest assured both are in large supply. Rather than shooting the film for the wide screen, they had to shoot it extra-tall, to accommodate Roberts’ elongated melon.

It might be unprofessional of me to judge an actress solely on her face, but I counter that it is equally unprofessional for a good actress like Julia Roberts to act in such warmed-over cliché-fests as this. I do not mind her gaping, toothy maw when it is the source of strong, intelligent dialogue, but when all that emanates from it is verbal tedium, my mind wanders and I begin to contemplate whether it would be possible to fit both of my hands inside her mouth. (I believe it would. If I ever meet her, I will try.)

Horseface plays Katherine Watson, a “bohemian from California” (we’re told) who, in 1953, gains a position as an art history professor at ultra-conservative Wellesley College. Only girls go here, and all they want to do is kill time before they’re married, at which point they’ll slack off in their studies and start pumping out babies. (I went to Brigham Young University, so this scenario is not altogether foreign to me.) Katherine is appalled and begins whinnying her disapproval however she can, though as a bohemian from California – she went to Berkeley!!!!!!!!!! – there is only so much she can get away with before the administration turns its watchful, dyke-y eye upon her.

This film is a lot like “Dead Poet’s Society,” except crappy. It’s one of those flawed-mentor, you’re-teaching-them-but-they’re-really-teaching-you, see-the-world-through-new-eyes kind of claptraps, with every element of the plot foreseeable even by the dumbest of viewers. Katherine’s generic romance with a caddish professor played by Dominic West barely even tries to be interesting, much less unpredictable.

Making matters worse is the utter unlikability of almost every character. Roberts’ performance is the acting equivalent of sitting at your desk and shuffling papers all day to look busy when in fact you are playing Tetris. She apparently fooled director Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”), but she’s not fooling me! I know slacking when I see it. Julia Stiles continues her unbroken streak of exclusively playing frigid harpies, and even Kirsten Dunst, for whom I have great personal affection, comes off badly as an attitude-heavy student who gets married and lives to regret it. The only characters I liked were Ginnifer Goodwin as a less-pretty student with a spunky personality, and Marcia Gay Harden as a tamped-down but genuine professor. Everyone else is fake, bitter and unpleasant, if they have even those many attributes; many are simply “types” pasted onto the faces of actresses.

The film was written by the duo of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, whose last two projects together were “Planet of the Apes” (2001) and “Mighty Joe Young” (1998). This was their first non-monkey-related film in quite some time, and perhaps they had forgotten how to write for human beings. The women here are either stone-cold man-haters or man-hungry ditzes. Both types exist in life, of course, but the fairer sex has other variations, too, and it might have been well to explore some of them, particularly in a film aimed at female viewers. If women wanted to consume entertainment that takes a dim view of womanhood, they could stay home and watch any reality TV program. Why should they go out and pay for it?

D (1 hr., 57 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some mild sexuality.)