Two films flunk women's studies

Not much to smile about in 'Mona Lisa.' Only fans of 'The Full Monty' need make a date for 'Calendar Girls.'

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Strong female characters are at the center of several new comedies and comedy-dramas. This week brings "Mona Lisa Smile," with Julia Roberts as a progressive '50s college professor, and "Calendar Girls," about a gaggle of aging Englishwomen who doff their clothes for charity.

"Mona Lisa Smile" takes place at a New England women's college, where an ornery Berkeley alumna (Roberts) accepts a teaching job because she'd rather make a difference in conservative students' lives than preach her women's-lib ideas to folks who already agree.

Her field is art history, which provides much cultural grist for her to work with, especially in 1953, when debates over modernism raised high passions.

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Her first day of teaching reveals that her students are excellent at excelling - they all absorbed the entire textbook before the semester even started - but not so hot at thinking for themselves. The new educator determines to shake up their narrow-minded views, which is quite a challenge in an era when earning "the Mrs. degree" was the primary reason for many girls to attend college at all.

Roberts brings a sense of personal conviction to her part - she's quite a feminist herself - and as much sense of humor as the corny screenplay allows.

Also on campus is an impressive supporting cast including Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Juliet Stevenson, and Marcia Gay Harden.

None of them are at their best under the directing of Mike Newell, who counts "Four Weddings and a Funeral" among his credits. The college atmosphere is almost never convincing, and sentimentality trumps substance at every opportunity. "Mona Lisa Smile" is a ringing call for women's liberation in the 1950s. Haven't we been there, done that already?

The heroines of "Calendar Girls" are members of a ladies' club in northern England who decide to juice up their charitable work by replacing the bucolic views on their annual charity calendar with a 1999 edition featuring their own bodies coyly photographed in the buff.

This really happened, and the calendar became wildly successful. If the same doesn't happen to Nigel Cole's movie, it's because the director of "Saving Grace" follows all the same formulas of that 2000 hit, also about a naughty woman. Don't race to see it unless a female "Full Monty" is just what you've been waiting for.

Both films, rated PG-13, contain sexuality and adult themes.

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