They're about to teach each other how to act their age!
Uptown Girls is a film that most critics and other moviegoers hated. I, on the other hand, found it to be a weirdly appealing, even heartwarming comedy despite its complete lack of a single original idea. This clichéd but likeable mutt of a movie is now available on DVD courtesy of MGM.
Facts of the Case
Molly Gunn (Brittany Murphy, Just Married) has lived a dream life. Her father was a rock star who left her with millions of dollars, a collection of classic guitars, and no need ever to worry or work. It has been a life free from any sort of adult responsibility, a sort of non-stop party, a truly "Charmed Life," as the opening soundtrack tune dutifully informs us. It would have been a modern-day fairy tale, if only her parents had lived to share it with her rather than dying in a plane crash when she was eight.
When her late father's trusted financial advisor runs off with the remains of her fortune, Molly is forced to look for work. Enter Ray Schleine. Ray (Dakota Fanning, I Am Sam) is eight years old going on 38, an anal-retentive control freak to make Martha Stewart look laid back by comparison. Her mother, Roma (Heather Locklear, Dynasty), is a high-powered record executive, and her father is in a coma, slowly dying from a terminal illness in the library of the family's lavish apartment. Ray's obsessive behaviors have just driven off the third nanny this month, and Molly's famous family connections impress Roma enough that she finds herself in the job.
Ray's precocious neuroticism predictably collides with Molly's stubbornly arrested development, making this a coming-of-age movie for both characters.
There is no denying that Uptown Girls has a certain charm, and the main source of that charm is Brittany Murphy. She is an actress who has parlayed her adequate talent, impressive energy, and considerable good looks into a career playing slightly vulnerable, slightly daffy roles with a dose of slapstick. It seems that every actress these days with even the slightest aptitude for slapstick or absurdity is inevitably compared to Lucille Ball, but in this case, the comparison really does seem appropriate. Whether she is breaking a heel and falling on her heinie or struggling with one of those movie closets where all the clothes fall down the minute the star goes to hang something up, Murphy makes a number of unimaginative sight gags seem a lot funnier than they actually are. Her goofy, wide-eyed sincerity and toothy grin always manage to sell a scene, regardless of how tired or unreal it may actually be.
I usually don't like child actors, but Dakota Fanning may well prove an exception. As Ray, she has to do intentionally all the things that child actors usually do by accident. She generally has to be obnoxious, insufferable, brassy, and bossy, all the while creating a believable performance. That it (mostly) works without making us want to tear our eyelids off and eat them is a tribute to Fanning's growing talent.
One high point of the movie is the direction by Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans), who works hard to fill it with a lot more visual style and creativity than one might expect. Yakin is not afraid to move his camera through all three dimensions. He does some very nice things with reflection and perspective shots that capture an almost painterly feel at times, making Manhattan seem like a truly enchanted kingdom for the two princesses to explore.
Of course, Yakin takes the opportunity to explain all of that to us over the course of a documentary featurette entitled The Lowdown on Uptown. In this 13-minute collection of talking heads and on-set clips we get to hear yet another Brittany Murphy/Lucille Ball comparison (courtesy of Yakin this time), as well as the usual collection of usual suspects spouting the usual non-informative blather about how much they loved working on the movie and all their co-workers and so forth. A second featurette bears the title Rockin' Style and spends eight minutes focused on the critical decisions facing costume designer Sarah Edwards. Stills galleries on a DVD are usually as worthless as…something unusually worthless. However, if DVD producers continue to insist on including them, the one on this disc shows how to do it. The images are flashed across the screen rather rapidly, the whole thing is set to tunes from the soundtrack, and it all takes just over one minute.
There are a few extras that are more clearly promotional/advertising materials. Walking a fine line is a music video for the soundtrack tune "Time," performed by Chantal Kreviazuk, who evidently thinks that '80s-style legwarmers are due for a comeback. The song is kind of catchy and makes an inoffensive attempt at being poignant, but the video is nothing special. A promotional spot for the soundtrack CD crosses the line into blatant tie-in advertising, but most of the songs are listenable enough that it might be worth picking up. There is also a trailer for Uptown Girls, as well as bonus trailers for a few other MGM releases.
The meatiest extra feature is the collection of 13 deleted or alternate scenes. Some of these are quite lengthy, providing interesting glimpses of entire plotlines that were abandoned or severely truncated. Some commentary or even simple brief explanations from Yakin would have been useful for this material. In any case, there is nothing here that stands out as material that should have been left in the finished movie.
That all adds up to a decent but not terribly impressive collection of extra features. MGM, however, has decided to label this disc a "Special Edition" for no apparent reason. The "Special Edition" moniker becomes even more specious when one considers the video and sound presentation on this disc. The picture is presented in anamorphic widescreen, in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Colors are bright and vibrant, and the effort put into the sets and cinematography really pays off. However, there are a few problems. Darker scenes and shadows tend to look a bit fuzzy and muddy. Also, there tends to be some annoying mosquito noise around indoor light sources, such as the sconces in the hall outside Molly's fabulous apartment. The audio is clean and clear, conveying voices and sound effects with equal ease. It is mostly unremarkable, but there are a couple sequences featuring on-screen musicians. In these instances, the Dolby 5.1 mix does a nice job of recreating the sound and feel of a live musical performance. Soundtrack songs also come through loud and clear, making the actual dialogue and sound effects seem a bit weak by comparison.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The main problem with Uptown Girls is the lack of convincing development of character relationships. The emotional details are simply missing. The entire movie feels like a long trailer of excerpts from what would have been a better film. Watching it, I was left with the constant feeling that I had missed something, that important developments in plot and character had happened off-screen and were simply taken for granted.
Another problem is the challenge that Uptown Girls faces in building sympathy for its main characters. When financial crisis interrupts Molly's non-stop party animal lifestyle, audience members may be forgiven if they think that finding a job might actually do this spoiled rock and roll princess some good. Going from horrendously spoiled to the real world isn't really the stuff that tragedies are made of; this isn't exactly The Bicycle Thief or Children of Heaven. Besides, if the events in Molly's backstory had happened in the real world, she would have sold the movie rights a long time ago and made a fortune. Similarly, Ray's central problem seems to be that she too is spoiled extravagantly, in her mother's disinterested attempt to make up for a complete lack of parental involvement. To be sure, Ray's life is less ideal than her gilded surroundings would make it seem, but it's hardly as if she were growing up in Bosnia.
For the most part, Uptown Girls is just another tired take on the old Odd Couple formula, with Murphy as Oscar and Fanning as Felix. Ray even has some of the trademark tics of the old Jack Lemmon/Tony Randall character, such as a preoccupation with things nasal and sinus-related, and an obsession with neatness and order. Fanning does what she can, and is as convincing in the role as anyone could hope to be, but it is written as such a caricature that no amount of talent could make it work. There are people in the world who act like Ray—I suspect that some of them may have had a hand in scripting her character—but eight year old girls are not among them.
Even Murphy's usually winsome looks are not what one expects in this movie. She is skeletally thin, with hollow, cadaverous eyes and cheeks. She looks like Courtney Love in desperate need of a fix. Her custom-built lips are certainly alluring, although she all too often leaves them parted in a pouty, open-mouthed expression that would not be out of place on a bad VHS rental cover in the porno section.
It may be a mass of clichés, but I enjoyed Uptown Girls a lot more than I should have. Even the incredibly schmaltzy and clichéd ending, stolen from a hundred other, better films (About a Boy comes to mind, as just one example), which should have had me roaring with cynical laughter, managed to jerk a tear or two out of me.
One thing that will continue to perplex me about Uptown Girls is how in the world it ever got a PG-13 rating. I know that the PG-13 rating is considered a marketing asset for films of this nature looking to cater to key demographics, but there is simply nothing here that could push the rating any higher than PG, if that.
I know I should find this flick Guilty, but I think I will have to write it off as a guilty pleasure instead. I know that by any objective criteria for film criticism, Uptown Girls is simply wretched on so many levels, but for some odd reason I liked it. Of course, I'm the same guy who gave a marginally positive review to Joe Dirt, so there is precedent for this sort of thing.
We stand adjourned.
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