It's been three long years since Julia Roberts winningly rambled her way through her Oscar acceptance speech. But since then, what? Between ''Ocean's Eleven,'' ''Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,'' and ''Full Frontal,'' it was beginning to look like she had given up her Queen of the A List tiara to become the female Luis Guzmán, stringing together bit parts in Steven Soderbergh films.
Well, one thing's for sure: There's no confusing ''Mona Lisa Smile'' with a Soderbergh film, what with its lack of heists, hitmen, and he-man repartee. This is unmistakably a chick flick. And one set at an all-girls college in 1953. Taking a page out of the ''Dead Poets Society'' playbook, Roberts plays Katherine Watson, a free-spirited art history professor who opens the eyes (and loosens the girdles) of her students, who've been taught to meet a nice boy, get married, then stay home and have kids. ''Julia's character keeps telling the girls it doesn't have to be that way,'' says Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the resident rebel. ''It can be -- and that's fine. But it doesn't have to be.'' Says Roberts, ''This is what I hope girls who see the film get from it: appreciate deeply the freedom, the job opportunities, blue jeans, and appreciate how difficult it was for a whole society of women who forged that path.'' Mrs. Danny Moder adds, ''I guess I'm preaching one thing and kind of doing the other, because I still have rice in my hair and I want to stay home and cook dinner.''
The Killer Moment It's more like a series of small moments leading up to a killer realization: Eisenhower-era coeds can't depend on men and have to stand on their own two feet.