Performance art

Mona Lisa Smile
Starting tomorrow in area theaters
Three reels out of four

"Who can turn the world on with her smile?" went the famous opening line of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme. The line also could apply to Julia Roberts, whose new movie is Mona Lisa Smile.

Of course, Roberts’ megawatt grin is nothing like Mona Lisa’s, which is fine by me. The title refers to the famous painting — one of many topics of discussion in an art-history class taught by Roberts’ character.

Roberts plays Katherine Watson, a free-thinking UC Berkeley grad who accepts a job teaching art history at Wellesley, a prestigious women’s college in New England. This is 1953, when even the most gifted women were expected to go to college, get the proper education and then take their rightful position behind their successful husbands.

Katherine doesn’t want to shake things up, but she does want to make sure the girls know they have an option. Although at first reluctant to listen to Katherine, her students eventually start thinking for themselves. Not surprisingly, Katherine’s methods are not well received by the school administration.

It’s tempting to call this Dead Poetesses’ Society, but nobody dies and the subject is art history. Mona Lisa Smile is not in the same league as Dead Poets, nor does it take itself as seriously as that movie.

Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) directs and, at first, he would seem an odd choice. The movie meanders quite a bit and one often isn’t sure whether its main subject is the students or Katherine. That might prevent Mona Lisa Smile from becoming quite special, but it does have its moments. In fact, the movie’s charm lies in its ability to make the best of little moments. One of the best is between Maggie Gyllenhall and Kirsten Dunst.

Of course, these two powerhouse young actors are among the reasons that Mona Lisa Smile works as well as it does. The third is Julia Stiles. The three are all just excellent as the more dominant members of Roberts’ class. They not only have the right look — surely helped by the excellent costumes — but they have more than their share of acting chops to pull it off. If anything, this is a rare opportunity to see three future megastars in action opposite a current megastar.

Not every movie has to be a home run. Some are content to be a solid double. Mona Lisa Smile might not be Oscar material, but it’s really hard not to like.

Recommended rental

Jeepers Creepers 2
Available Tuesday

He’s baaaaaack — this time, in the sequel to the immensely popular surprise hit, Jeepers Creepers. The Creeper is just finishing up his feeding cycle. And what does he see but a busload of stranded teens coming back from the big game? Like monsters are wont to do in these situations, the Creeper has his pick and the teens are left wondering who’s to be harvested next. Director Victor Salva obviously has watched his share of bad horror flicks but Jeepers Creepers 2 works best when reminiscent of a 1950s B-movie. The action is kept at a lightening-quick pace and there are few unnecessary moments, if any. Not a great film, by any means, but immensely watchable if you have a strong stomach.