The title may be “Uptown Girls,” but this movie is definitely the bottom of the barrel. An utterly vacuous bit of fluff about a spoiled once-rich young woman who learns responsibility when circumstances force her to take a job as nanny to a girl who’s old beyond her years, the picture yearns to be both funny and touching but manages to be neither.
Brittany Murphy stars as Molly Gunn, a ditsy New York party girl who lives the high life on royalties from the work of her late father, a great rock star. But when the inheritance is stolen by her accountant, she finds herself broke, and the efforts of her supportive but very different best friend Ingrid (Marley Shelton) prove unavailing. Luckily Molly’s buddy Huey (Donald Faison) is an employee at a club owned by the powerful Roma Schleine (Heather Locklear), whose daughter Ray (Dakota Fanning) has just driven away her latest nanny with her demanding ways. Molly lands the job, though her lack of aptitude for it quickly becomes clear, especially to the self-sufficient Ray, a middle-aged spinster in a child’s body. But never fear; this being Hollywood dreamland, the two totally dissimilar gals soon begin to learn from one another. Molly teaches Ray how to be a kid, and Ray teaches Molly how to be a grownup. Meanwhile a subplot has Molly pining after a supposedly brilliant young rocker named Neal (Jesse Spencer), who resists her advances because he’s so tied up in composing the purported masterpieces that will gain him fortune and fame. Not to worry; it’s inevitable that Cinderella and Prince Charming will wind up together, even if there isn’t the remotest logic behind their reconciliation and neither of them really fits the appointed role.
Nothing works in “Uptown Girls.” The screenplay, a committee effort, is one of those clumsy concoctions in which every element rings false and all the seams show, and Boaz Yakin’s direction lacks the lightness of touch which might have made the nonsense at least palatable, if not enjoyable. Murphy proves decidedly unmagical in the lead, italicizing things beyond all measure when a bit of underplaying would have helped (her slapstick klutziness is truly tiresome), and Fanning is so successful at acting the annoying prima donna that it’s difficult to sympathize with her plight even when it’s made clear that all she really needs is a little love. The rest of the cast are stuck in throwaway formula parts, and none is good enough to transcend them, though there’s a pet pig who shows a bit of personality. Spencer is particularly dull as the hunky but decidedly obtuse rocker. One of the producers, Fisher Stevens, makes a token appearance in a party scene, to no effect. The pastel-colored picture looks no better than okay.
It’s possible that “Uptown Girls” will strike a chord with audiences that have made hits out of such slight, manipulative fare as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Legally Blonde” (perhaps MGM’s model for this misfire). The desire to feel good sometimes overcomes all ability to discriminate between the good, the bad and the stupid. But this picture is so flimsy, so shallow, and so obvious in its devices that such an outcome seems unlikely; even the most undemanding viewers are likely to be aghast at the absurdity-piled-upon-absurdity character of the teary finale. “Girls” represents yet another step down the ladder for director Yakin, who started his feature career with the still-remarkable “Fresh,” stumbled with the ambitious “A Price Above Rubies” and then descended into full formula with “Remember the Titans.” His latest is certainly a suitable offering for the cinematic dog days of August. Woof!