“Living isn’t worth it if you’re not gonna have fun!” declares bubbly 22-year-old Molly. “Fundamentals are the building blocks of fun” responds sagelike 8-year-old Ray. In “Uptown Girls” they form a two-girl duo, with Molly showing Ray how to be a child and Ray instructing Molly in the ways of adult responsibilities. For starters, Ray tells her to “act your age, not your shoe size.” (Snide bon mots come out of Ray’s mouth like well-aimed spit balls.) But Molly is more adept at losing her shoes and walking home barefoot through the streets of Manhattan on cutely pedicured feet.
“Uptown Girls” is a cinematic lollipop, dusted with pink sugar. Take a lick and brace yourself for a violent hit of sweetness. The director is Boaz Yakin, whose debut feature, “Fresh” (1994), depicted the shrewdness of a 10-year-old Brooklyn drug dealer trying to outsmart the predatory adults around him and reclaim his own life. A decade later, Yakin is portraying pouting princesses who rhapsodize on the merits of Egyptian cotton sheets. Is this, like, progress?
Still, entertainment is to be found if you view “Uptown Girls” as a collision of two rich-girl personalities. Molly (Brittany Murphy) is the pampered orphan heiress to her late rock-star dad’s many millions. Her swank midtown condo features crimson walls, discarded thongs draped over wire bird-cages and her dad’s vast guitar collection. And she would have continued being the irresponsible “girlie to end all girlies,” if not for the fact that one day her accountant makes off with her trust fund and she’s left destitute, faced with the prospect of having to find a way to make money.
She lands a job as a nanny to the pale, so-blonde-it-hurts Ray (Dakota Fanning, “I Am Sam”). Both girls eye each other warily, but Ray immediately deduces that Molly is a complete airhead, which isn’t hard to see. Molly strides into Ray’s super-orderly room and squeals over her doll collection, takes one and throws it back on the shelf before rushing to another shelf to squeal over another toy. She’s just the kind of she-brat a precocious 8-year-old would never want to invite over.
As for Ray, she’s a bit on the obsessive-compulsive side: She pill-pops almost hourly for fear that her “immune system will crash” and carries her own bar of soap to avoid contamination. To ease her depression she listens to Mozart, and when she cries, she does it behind her sunglasses. Underneath that veneer, of course, is a little girl who longs for attention from her mother (a rock-star agent) and misses her father, who has been in a coma for the past two years.
Molly is the first nanny to try to deal with Ray’s sadness, but this kid is not someone who surrenders easily. When Molly informs her that it’s a “beauuuuutiful day” and suggests going out to ride in giant teacups, to go “round and round till we puke!” Ray coldly responds, “Are you on crack?”
Unfortunately, the movie begins to sag as soon as Molly becomes less of a ditz and Ray starts behaving more like a child. Deprived of the reversal of adult-child positions, it doesn’t have much going for it. Ray stops spewing her brilliant observations regarding the excessive stupidity of the adult world. Molly, on the other hand, displays a sudden increase in her vocabulary (lamentable, considering that “sex god” and “love machine” had been her two favorite words), causing her to lecture Ray’s mom with exactly the right portions of sanctimonious righteousness and grown-up politesse. Aw shucks.
The worst comes at the last half hour when “Uptown Girls” falls into pure sap and every little problem addressed in the movie is resolved by everyone suddenly changing their essential natures. After briefly digressing, Ray returns to her former self, but all th adults trade in their brassy, selfish personalities for something a lot less entertaining.
Ray’s mom (played with a marked lifelessness by Heather Locklear) brought her young rock-star dates home at 3 in the morning, missed out on every school function and was never around her daughter long enough to find out exactly what those functions may be (“That ballet thing, right?”). Then bam! She’s suddenly a mommy sewing up Ray’s tutu backstage before a solo performance.
An even worse offender is Molly’s love object, Neal. A self-absorbed, social-climbing British rock musician, he chucks Molly like a wilted bouquet, then contritely shows up to sing her his rendition of her father’s mega-hit called (gaaaa!) “Molly’s Song.” In my imaginary screenplay, this is where Ray opens up her Henri Bendel purse, takes out her bar of hand-milled honey soap, and stuffs it in his mouth.