Brat pack

Uptown Girls

Brittany Murphy, left, plays nanny to Dakota Fanning in <i>Uptown Girls</i>, a film developed from an idea pitched by a movie-studio receptionist.

Brittany Murphy, left, plays nanny to Dakota Fanning in Uptown Girls, a film developed from an idea pitched by a movie-studio receptionist.

Rated 2.0

Uptown Girls is a horror of a tear-jerking comedy manufactured by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, apparently in an effort to help Brittany Murphy establish herself as a screwball comedian (because she failed to do so in the even more horrible Just Married earlier this year). A secondary motive, evidently, was to make work for an appalling 9-year-old actress by the name of Dakota Fanning, who made something of a splash a couple of years ago as Sean Penn’s daughter in I Am Sam.

Murphy plays Molly Gunn, the daughter of a deceased rock star. By day, Molly sleeps in her overstuffed midtown apartment; by night, she parties on the money in Daddy’s $100-million trust fund. Her charmed life collapses when her business manager absconds to South America with all the money. Molly has to find a job, and the only one she can find is as a nanny to Ray Schleine (Fanning), the daughter of music executive Roma Schleine (Heather Locklear). Accustomed to being neglected, Ray is precocious and angry, a miniature adult, and Molly is naive and helpless, a child in a grown-up’s body. In the movie’s tortured logic, these two “damaged” little girls will wind up healing each other’s wounds.

Uptown Girls originated as a story by Allison Jacobs, who pitched it to her bosses five years ago when she was a receptionist at GreeneStreet Films. From there, it passed through the hands of three writers (Julia Dahl, Mo Ogrodnik and Lisa Davidowitz), apparently one after the other, with no two of them collaborating. The prior experience of all four comes to a grand total of two TV series (for Dahl) and one feature film (Ogrodnik). That may explain why Uptown Girls is so contrived and amateurish and why—after five years and all that tinkering—it still looks and sounds exactly like a receptionist’s idea of what would make a really cool movie. (A lowly receptionist no longer, Allison Jacobs is now listed among the six producers of Uptown Girls.)

Hired to direct—if “directing” is the right word for what amounts to cramming a stew of semi-digestible bits and pieces into one sausage skin—was Boaz Yakin. The director of Remember the Titans and A Price Above Rubies, Yakin is no slouch, but what can he do here, when the script is nothing more than a succession of bits designed to look good in the preview trailers? All he can do is bide his time on the set, call “action” and “cut” at appropriate intervals and hope the movie earns enough money to get him a little respect and freedom the next time out.

That may be a vain hope, however, because his two stars never really click—with each other or with us. Murphy’s soulful eyes are her most prominent feature, and they’re the main reason she made an impression in films like Don’t Say a Word and 8 Mile. But in Just Married, she made a different impression, and she confirms it here: When trying to do comedy, she becomes self-conscious and gauche. Her timing is always a beat or two off; she clomps through comic business like a teenage president of the Lucille Ball Fan Club and then beams with pleasure at just getting through it, as if the effort were its own reward. And when she shifts gears from comic to “serious,” she comes off as sulky and petulant.

Frankly, I avoided seeing I Am Sam, in which Penn played a mentally challenged man in a child-custody fight, because it’s becoming such a cliché: the big star doing his (or her) Rain Man bit. Having dodged that, I was unprepared for little Dakota Fanning, who played Penn’s daughter then and plays the poor little rich girl here. She boasts of having wanted to be an actress “since I was a little girl,” but after hearing her screech and snarl her lines without warmth, humor or conviction, and seeing her stumble through her mercifully brief ballet scenes, I think she just may be the most insufferable child performer in Hollywood’s history. When you think of all the obnoxious brats who have hogged a movie camera in the last 60 or 70 years, that’s saying something.

To sum up about Uptown Girls? Don’t say you haven’t been warned.