A 50s-set, female-take on Dead Poets Society, Mona Lisa Smile is like an awful hangover: stomach-churning, stupid and avoidable. Julia Roberts is against-the-grain teacher Katherine Watson, who lands a position at a conservative all-girls college, where her 'liberated' ways raise a few eyebrows. Not least those of prissy madam Betty (Kirsten Dunst) and her more easygoing mates: Joan, aka The Kind One (Julia Stiles); Giselle, aka The Tart (Maggie Gyllenhaal); and Connie, aka The Ugly/Fat One Who's Not Really Ugly Or Fat (impressive newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin).
She inspires her student stereotypes by, um, chatting about modern art, being single and eyeing up Professor Dunbar (Dominic West). The same qualities irritate the oh-so-uptight establishment, who persecute her by, ah, er, having a quiet word about her teaching methods. The horror.
"GROTESQUELY PATRONISING... STUPID"
Still reading? Well, it doesn't get any more interesting. Despite the quality cast and a director who made the brilliant Donnie Brasco, Mona Lisa Smile is devoid of enjoyment, intelligence or interest. It has no idea what it wants to say, for a start, offering a trite, follow-your-dreams message, which the cop-out conclusion suggests is little more than a self-justification for selfishness.
It's grotesquely patronising towards any conservative characters, other than Stiles' affectingly acted would-be lawyer, while its "progressive, forward-thinking" amounts to doling out jonnies, boffing a colleague and appreciating Jackson Pollock. The only really interesting, alternative character is Juliet Stevenson's long-serving lesbian teacher, who is dropped almost as soon as we meet her.
There's no sense of place or period either. A series of look-it's-the-50s touchstones are used (I Love Lucy, chintz), while Roberts (a very contemporary actress) looks likes she's walked in from Ocean's Eleven.
Then there's the ultimate insult of the Mona Lisa connection, which sees Dunst keeping a commendably straight face as she simpers, "She's smiling. Is she happy?" Someone has to be. But if you pay to see this you may feel as Roberts does in one of her moments of mini-trauma: "stupid, deceived and really, really angry."