Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 13, 2003
Uptown Girls\r\nStarring Brittany Murphy and Dakota Fanning. Directed by Boaz Yakin. Written by Julia Dahl, Mo Ogrodnik, and Lisa Davidowitz. Rated PG-13.
Growing Up Is Hard to Do

By the end of the surprisingly good Uptown Girls, Brittany Murphy looks like an adult.


’ll admit: I came into Uptown Girls expecting the worst, having seen the trailers. And for the first 15 or 20 minutes, it looked well on its way to delivering, but then it got interesting. This unexpectedly dark-hued comedy stars Brittany Murphy as Molly Gunn, a famous rock star’s only daughter, who was orphaned as a little girl when her parents died in a plane crash. Molly’s inherited wealth has allowed her to drift through life unencumbered by schooling or jobs, and she’s used to getting whatever she wants. It’s not enough for her to sleep with a cute guy; she has to target guys who are completely unavailable. She can’t even clean her room, and her friends have grown used to picking up after her.

Of course, this rock ’n’ roll princess is due for a fall: Her business manager flees the country with all her money. Completely without job skills, she gets hired as a nanny for a music producer’s 8-year-old daughter. Ray (Dakota Fanning) is an anorexic in training, popping pills, wiping down every surface with antiseptic, and driving away a series of nannies who interfere with her fanatical neatness. As different as she is from Molly, Ray is effectively parentless as well — her dad lies comatose from a massive stroke, and her mom (Heather Locklear) barely notices her existence.

Molly’s and Ray’s personalities are neatly mismatched enough to lead you to expect wacky comic hijinks to ensue, and to an extent they do. Yet there’s a seriousness underlying the slapstick humor, perhaps because Murphy looks genuinely scared and out of her depth when Molly tries to engage the professional world. Murphy starts the movie using the same attention-getting, ain’t-I-cute mannerisms that she (and many other Hollywood actresses) use in these light comedies. Murphy manages to make this the character’s affectation rather than her own, and she gives the antics an increasing sense of desperation as Molly gets kicked out of her apartment and has to sell off most of her possessions for cash.

And then there’s the moment when Molly takes Ray home from ballet class. Inspired by Ray’s classmates, Molly’s doing her own dance moves as they walk and gently mocking Ray’s serious attitude toward dance. When Ray responds by giving Molly the finger for the second time in the film, Molly’s good mood suddenly evaporates as she grabs the girl’s hand and says with an unexpected calmness and purpose, “Don’t do that again.” You can feel the whole movie snapping to at that point, where Molly finds it in herself to discipline the kid. The relationship between these two never really resonates because Ray’s character is a generic precocious kid and Dakota Fanning is too studied a performer. Even so, Ray is an effective foil for Molly’s immaturity.

This utterly conventional material could be lethal in the wrong hands, but director Boaz Yakin exhibits the same skill for it that he showed in his football movie Remember the Titans, although this film is actually better than that box-office hit because it’s narrower in scope and less conspicuously out to lift your spirits. Yakin and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus give the Manhattan setting a spangly fairy-tale look that contrasts with the story’s undercurrents of death and loss, and they make inspired use of a Coney Island amusement park. Molly’s confusion is reflected in some vertiginous shots, and he does a really good job with the scene in which she jumps off a bridge, even if the resulting gag was stolen from Harold Lloyd. He also scores with a music video parody. (Note to aspiring filmmakers: When stuck for a laugh, you can always get one with a music video parody. Even in the lamest films, this never seems to fail.)

Still, Uptown Girls relies on Murphy’s performance, and she delivers something far beyond the good-time girls she played in Just Married, 8 Mile, and Summer Catch. As Molly learns to make her own way in the world, her mannerisms drop away, her walk becomes more purposeful, the cutesy flourishes go out of her voice. By the time Molly stands up to Ray’s mom and then wearily shrugs off the boyfriend who ditched her and now wants her back (Jesse Spencer), you can see how far she’s come. It all leads to a scene that’s as affecting as anything in a movie this year. Molly’s serenaded with a performance of the one song by her dad that she could never stand to hear because it was about her. The song, “Molly Smiles,” sounds like something that a rock star would write after his kid is born and makes him see the world differently. What really makes the moment so affecting, though, is the nauseous look on Murphy’s face that gives way to a warm, radiant smile — for once, there’s no neediness in her eyes, only serenity. For the first time in her acting career, Brittany Murphy looks something like a grown-up.

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