Julia Roberts face to face the Ring

There is only one film force mighty enough to challenge the power of The Ring at theater box offices, and that is the broad smile of movie queen Julia Roberts, whose "Mona Lisa Smile" debuts in theaters on Friday.

By now, fans know the third installment, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," in the series of films about an epic war for control of Middle Earth opened on Wednesday.

All signs point to "Rings" being this weekend's No. 1 box office draw. On its first day alone, the 3 hour, 20 minute movie sold a record $34.1 million worth of tickets.

Still, "Smile" has Oscar winning sweetheart Roberts in the lead role, as well as a compelling tale aimed primarily at women and other moviegoers who prefer a character driven story over the action and special effects of films like "Rings."

Roberts plays Katherine Watson, a liberal, art history professor from California who, in 1953, gets her dream job teaching at exclusive all-girls college, Wellesley – reports &to=http://www.reuters.com' target=_blank>Reuters

You can bake your cake and eat it too!" says the reassuring slogan that distills the comfy revisionist feminism informing "Mona Lisa Smile." That slogan is repeated empathically enough to qualify as the defining mantra of a movie that pretends to be audacious. And the lurking duplicity in that loaded word "bake" (remember Hillary Rodham Clinton's sarcastic remarks about baking cookies?) winds up applying to the movie itself. Like "Down With Love" earlier this year, "Mona Lisa Smile" preaches disruptive female self-empowerment out of one side of its mouth while out of the other it invokes the dream of being swept up, up and away by Prince Charming.

If Ms. Roberts is the undisputed star of "Mona Lisa Smile," she graciously allows her acolytes plenty of opportunity to sparkle. Each plays a specific type. Ms. Dunst is Betty Warren, a vicious, overprivileged alpha girl and archtraditionalist hellbent on marriage to a louse, who attacks Katherine in the college newspaper.

As the story follows Katherine through her first year at Wellesley, there are enough reversals to keep you guessing which characters will escape this upscale cuckoo's nest, although it's not very hard to figure out. Although Ms. Roberts is playing a grown-up academic, the aura she wafts is as ingenuous as ever. She is still the wide-eyed but feisty people's princess and angel of common sense whose high-beam smile can melt steel. Think of "Mona Lisa Smile" as "The Best of Everything" meets "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." Or better yet, "Goodbye, Little Miss Chips" – informs &to=http://www.nytimes.com' target=_blank>Nytimes.com

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