Molly Gunn (Brittany Murphy) likes her Fifth Avenue apartment, sex with pretty male strangers, and the guitar collection left to her by her deceased rock god dad. She doesn’t much like taking responsibility for anything, but that’s all right, because her dad left her a sizeable estate. She looks great in glitter tops and short skirts. What else could she need to know?
At the start of Uptown Girls, Molly is full of confidence and a profound lack of ambition. She celebrates her 22nd birthday at a surprise party thrown by her friends, including supercilious socialite Ingrid (Marley Shelton) and down-to-earth A&R scout Huey (Donald Faison). Apparently as usual, Molly catches the eye of the aspiring rock star hired as the evening’s entertainment, Neal Fox (Jesse Spencer). He sounds quite dull in the fragment of a performance on screen, but no one in the room seems to notice; in fact, one of the execs at the party, Roma (Heather Locklear), tells him he’s “the best blue-eyed soul since Jeff Buckley.”
Molly has her own ideas. She brings Neal home to meet her pet pig and spend a few days in entwined-bodies bliss. In between lusty bouts, he tells her he’s a serious alternative rocker, dismissing Molly’s suggestion that his latest song needs a pop hook. “I don’t wear purple,” he asserts. “And I don’t do hooks.” Molly is rather contrary herself (it has to do with not having a father, or a mother, who died with him on the plane but doesn’t get much attention here), so she initially hopes Neal will leave, complaining to Ingrid that he writes “loser songs.” Then, when he does leave (fearing that if he spends all his time with this gorgeous girl, he’s not working hard enough on his “art”), she begs him to take her back — repeatedly. That she considers “being together” being in one another’s company every minute of every day may strike some as clingy (or, as Neal puts it, “suffocating”). Then again, maybe Molly just needs to feel in control. Either way, she’s like fingernails on a chalkboard, and Neal walks.
Enter life-changing crisis. Molly learns that her business manager has stolen all her money, and oh my goodness, she needs to get a job. The only one she’s even close to managing is the one Huey arranges for her, as nanny to Roma’s eight-year-old, Ray (Dakota Fanning). The gimmick is this: while Molly’s loosey goosey and bighearted, disorganized and prone to pratfalls, Ray is a baby fascist, her every moment scheduled and her every thought directed toward a concrete end. With this meeting, Uptown Girls‘ straight-ahead bearing is set: Molly will learn to be responsible and Ray will learn to “be a kid.”
Sort of to its credit, the script by Alison Jacobs, Julie Dahl, Mo Ogrodnik, and Lisa Davidowitz, adjusts the usual romantic comedy formula to accommodate two girls who form their own familial unit, much like the Weitz brothers’ movie, About A Boy, adjusted for its male protagonists. Both films bring together an immature adult and a too mature child who begin as seeming opposites, confront minor crises, and eventually fall in love, as each comes to appreciate the other’s differences. (That Uptown Girls essentially lifts the climactic stage performance scene from About A Boy is surely a coincidence.)
Here, both girls have money and father issues (as these are insidiously related): Molly’s are obvious (money and her dead dad are inextricably tied together) and Ray’s are discomforting. Her dad lies in a coma in Roma’s super well-appointed apartment, down a long stark hallway (a hallway that Molly immediately likens to a scary movie: “What is this, The Shining?”). Given her own tragic experience and lack of “closure,” Molly intuitively comprehends Ray’s nervousness about her dying father. This while overachieving, overbooked, overprofessional Roma (who apparently deals with her own grief over the comatose husband by sleeping with her young label signees) refuses to acknowledge same.
While it seems extraneous, this psychobabblish plot insert buttresses the Molly-Ray romance. As Roma insists that Ray is doing fine, between her ballet classes and affection for Mozart, the juvenile-seeming Molly shows herself to be the more empathetic parental figure: how ironic. Conveniently, as she encourages her young charge to spend time at his bedside, to talk to him, Molly is able to come to terms with her own loss. Ray finds herself able to cry. Roma witnesses good parenting, or, parenting better than hers, which isn’t saying much. Everybody wins.
Except maybe Neal, whose rejection of Molly takes on its own psychobabblic dimension when he signs with Roma and becomes a pop star (not a sulky alternative or even emo star). His lack of fidelity and integrity is underlined when he steals Molly’s ideas — the hook, the purple, even the expensive Egyptian cotton sheets she buys him as a gift — to craft a hit single and heavily rotating music video.
When Molly spots him cavorting on tv with scantily clad back-up dancers, she suddenly sees her own desire for this twerpy wannabe in a new light. (This would seem the perfect opportunity for her to recognize her most excellent and most loyal soulmate in Huey, who has stood by her through all the trauma and ridiculousness, but no — Huey remains the wisely goofy best friend.) Uptown Girls is most convincing (if that means anything in the context of this most unconvincing genre, romantic comedy) when it attends to the girls per se. It’s a measure of the film’s lack of imagination that it has to pad Molly and Ray’s interesting-enough friendship with such conventional silliness.