A rebellious art history teacher tries to shake up her conformist students at Wellesley College, only to find that though their academic achievements equal those of students at the best men's colleges, they all have their eyes on graduating with an MRS degree. California bohemian Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) comes to chilly, East Coast Wellesley for the 1953-54 academic year, armed with boxes of slides and the conviction that today's best and brightest women should be tomorrow's leaders, not their wives. The well-bred young women of Wellesley, however, are expected to devote equal time to mastering both the intricacies of physics and the art of setting a formal table, and using those skills to make their future husbands look good at dinner with the boss. Katherine's proto-feminist ideas don't sit well with the powerful old-girl alumni association, and her students are dubious about her emphasis on creative thinking rather than absorbing received wisdom from the assigned texts. Katherine eventually wins over most of the girls, including primly brilliant Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), forward-thinking Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and insecure Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin), the plump duckling surrounded by swans. But holdout Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), bullied by her battleaxe of a mother (Donna Mitchell) into mimicking her own unyielding attitudes, writes bitter editorials for the school paper that give the alumni ammunition against the "subversive" Katherine. Inspired by an article about Hilary Rodham Clinton's Wellesley experiences during the 1960s, screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal stepped back a generation to craft this formulaic coming-of-age story about young women trapped between post-war social backlash, which demoted women from new-found wartime independence to domestic KP duty, and the feminist revolution to come. The burden of invigorating this derivative story, which is deeply indebted to THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969) and DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989), rests uneasily on the shoulders of Julia Roberts, who's incapable of playing anything but a variation on her thoroughly modern self. Katherine is the supposed bearer of the titular smile, the film's overriding metaphor for the unruffled surface that conceals inner turmoil, but her goofy, charismatic grin is the farthest thing imaginable from La Giaconda's enigmatic expression. From her speech patterns to her body language, Roberts's performance is wrong for the period even for a free-thinking character like Katherine Watson and she can't overcome a script that hands Katherine improbably easy victories and sugar-coated defeats that aren't really defeats at all.
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- Released: 2003
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: A rebellious art history teacher tries to shake up her conformist students at Wellesley College, only to find that though their academic achievements equal those of students at the best men's colleges, they all have their eyes on graduating with an MRS deg… (more)