[Screen It]

(2003) (Brittany Murphy, Dakota Fanning) (PG-13)

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Drama/Comedy: After all of her money is gone, a spoiled and never employed young woman grows up a bit when she becomes a nanny for an uptight and precocious little girl.
Molly Gunn (BRITTANY MURPHY) is a rock and roll princess who's been living off the profits of her late parents. Spoiled and immature, she's never worked a day in her life and instead hangs out with her friends, Ingrid (MARLEY SHELTON) and Huey (DONALD FAISON). She also falls for an up and coming performer, Neil Fox (JESSE SPENCER), who uses her as his muse.

When the man controlling her trust fund takes all of her money and flees the country, however, Molly must get a job. Huey eventually finds her work with record executive Roma Schleine (HEATHER LOCKLEAR), as a nanny for her precocious daughter Ray (DAKOTA FANNING).

She's an uptight and beyond her years little girl who's built up a barricade around herself due to having an emotionally distant mom and a father who's in a coma. Accordingly, Ray and Molly instantly clash, but soon begin to help each other through their various issues and problems.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
Homage is defined as respect shown or expressed publicly, but plagiarism is noted as using or passing off one's work as his or her own. Then there's coincidence where something accidental nevertheless seems to have been planned.

When two movies are released within a relatively short period of time and have more than just a passing similarity in plot and characters, it's questionable which of the above definitions best applies to the films. That's due to the usually long production process where the second film actually could have started before the first. Whatever the case, the first such film usually gets the benefit of the doubt while the second often raises eyebrows in terms of that obvious resemblance.

Such is the case with "Uptown Girls," the tale of a spoiled and never employed "rock and roll princess" who learns to grow up when she encounters an uptight kid who must learn how to have fun. If that sounds to you like a female spin on the fabulous Hugh Grant film, "About a Boy," you won't be alone. In fact, there are so many similarities - coincidental or not - that this effort might as well have been called "About a Girl."

There are differences in the particulars, of course, but that familiarity is just the tip of a cinematic iceberg of problems that's so enormous it could sink any vessel no matter its star power. In this case, that's up and coming actress Brittany Murphy ("8 Mile," "Don't Say a Word") who's once again called upon to exude a certain ditzy and clumsy aura, somewhat like her last film, "Just Married."

Forced to play a horrendously conceived and written character, Murphy can't do anything with it other than come off as embarrassingly bad. For better or worse, she's in good (or make that "plentiful") company, both in front of and behind the camera. While I suppose there will be some viewers who are suckered into this film and its hokey story, most everything about it - from the writing to the directing and acting - is off the mark if not downright bad.

Beyond being sappy, melodramatic and unsuccessfully trying to combine light comedy with more serious drama, the film is far too predictable. From start to finish, there's never any doubt about what will come next or how things will play out (no doubt helped by being familiar with Grant's film).

In most such enlightenment-structured plots, the adult either has to learn to grow up or, conversely, regain their inner child. In this case, it's the former, while Dakota Fanning's uptight little girl character gets to experience the latter. It's bad enough when any given film is poorly executed on so many fronts, but add in the lack of any surprises or the inability to engage the viewer and you have a deadly combination.

Just as bad are the manipulative elements that not only are scattered throughout the production like weed-filled grass seed, but also are far too obvious in their structure and appearance. All of which only exacerbates the film's artificial feel.

Murphy has previously proven to be a decent light comedy actress, but she needs better written martial than this to return to that genre. Fanning ("Trapped," "I Am Sam") is no doubt a gifted child actress, but her character here feels completely manufactured rather than natural, thus hampering her and the film's ability to elicit viewer sympathy.

Supporting performances from the likes of Heather Locklear (TV's "Spin City" and "Melrose Place"), Marley Shelton ("Bubble Boy," "Valentine"), Donald Faison ("Big Fat Liar," "Remember the Titans") and Jesse Spencer ("Swimming Upstream") range from decent to mediocre. That's because they all similarly suffer at the hands of screenwriters Julia Dahl (making her debut), Mo Ogrodnik ("Ripe") and Lisa Davidowitz (making her debut) and director Boaz Yakin ("Remember the Titans," "A Price Above Rubies").

The effort is so bad that when Murphy's character crosses a bridge at one point in the film, I hoped she'd jump to put both her and us out of our collective misery. She does, but her suicide attempt is unsuccessful and quickly segues into "comedy" the moment she hits the water. It's just another sign that the film simply doesn't work. Trust me, avoid this one at all costs. "Uptown Girls" rates as a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed July 24, 2003 / Posted August 15, 2003

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