December 22, 2003 12:00 PM

Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal


The period clothes, circa 1953, are swell. I covet the flattering cashmere sweater sets, the fitted wool skirts, the chic shirt dresses and camel-hair coats. But it takes more than costumes to make a movie, and Mona Lisa Smile never excels beyond its wardrobe.

Borrowing from Dead Poets Society and other exponents of the Education-Is-Good School of Filmmaking, Smile is about one teacher’s making a difference. That egghead would be Katherine Watson (Roberts), a bohemian art-history professor who arrives at tradition-bound Wellesley College, a women’s school, and shakes up the snooty students. The only surprise here—read no further if you hate knowing what’s going to happen—is that no one gets pregnant and no one ends up committing suicide.

Roberts is coasting here, bringing out that dazzling smile when a scene needs goosing. With the exception of the willowy Gyllenhaal, who slithers about in a sexy, heated haze, the other young actresses strain at playing some misguidedly strident notion of uptight ’50s womanhood. (PG-13)

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