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Role reversal drives predictable 'Girls'

August 15, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

There is something unnerving about watching Brittany Murphy portray a kooky, klutzy daughter of a deceased rock legend in "Uptown Girls." Director Boaz Yakin has her constantly going over the top and flailing about in all directions in a misguided attempt at madcap comedy. Murphy, who looks like she could use a good rest, strives mightily to accommodate him but ends up seeming merely strained when she's supposed to come across as irresistibly charming despite her character's erratic ways.

But then "Uptown Girls" is on the whole a consistently strained effort. At heart it has a simple, age-old plot: Careless good-time girl Molly Gunn, whose business manager has made off with her $100-million inheritance, is forced to take a job as a nanny for a classically neglected poor little rich girl Ray (Dakota Fanning), whose steely realism and determined self-reliance would be admirable in an 80-year-old but is sad in an 8-year-old. In short, Molly needs to grow up as much as Ray needs to reclaim her childhood. There's not a whole lot of suspense to whether the warm, free-spirited Molly will thaw out the rigidly icy Ray and in return learn how to be responsible for herself as well as for Ray.

This inherent predictability, which could have been overcome if the development of Molly's character had been handled as carefully as Ray's, seems to have worried the film's clutch of writers as well as Yakin. This could be why they have Molly go through far too many silly and outlandish (not to mention nakedly contrived) situations in a desperate attempt to jazz up familiar material. Ironically, the precious few moments in which the film actually works occur when it is serious -- when in touching and imaginative fashion Molly and Ray discover themselves in each other. A spinning teacup ride at Coney Island serves as a deft metaphor for the state of mind the two discover they share, but these sequences are undercut by a treacly patch of music in composer Joel McNeely's otherwise appropriately lively score.

Ray belongs to a long line of precocious Hollywood brats, but Fanning, with far more focused material to work with than Murphy, displays the stellar presence and originality that made her so appealing as Sean Penn's tiny co-star in "I Am Sam." Jesse Spencer is pleasant but colorless as a wannabe rock star Molly lusts after, but seems too young for her. Marley Shelton and Donald Faison are stuck in thankless "best friend" roles. Like Murphy, Heather Locklear, seen briefly as Ray's self-absorbed mother, cannot be said to have been flattered by the naturalistic lighting of celebrated cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. "Uptown Girls" is more downer than upper.


'Uptown Girls'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and language

Times guidelines: Too many adult situations for most youngsters

Brittany Murphy...Molly

Dakota Fanning...Ray

Marley Shelton...Ingrid

Donald Faison...Huey

Jesse Spencer...Neal

An MGM presentation of a Greenestreet Films production. Director Boaz Yakin. Producers John Penotti, Fisher Stevens, Allison Jacobs. Executive producers Joe Caracciolo Jr., Tim Williams, Boaz Yakin. Screenplay by Julia Dahl and Mo Ogrodnik and Lisa Davidowitz; from a story by Allison Jacobs. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor David Ray. Music Joel McNeely. Choreographer JoAnn Jansen. Costumes Sarah Edwards. Production designer Kalina Ivanov. Art director Frank White III. Set decorator Pamela Roy.

In general release.

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