Uptown Girls, with its ominously square title suggesting a feature-length Billy Joel video, arrives in theaters smelling a bit spoiled -- and not only because annoyingly precocious Dakota Fanning plays a pampered 8-year-old going on 58. Everything about it, from after-school-special premise (girl teaches woman how to act like an adult, woman teaches girl how to live like a child) to plot point (said woman lives off her father's pop-song royalties) to overwrought finale (musical production number on school auditorium stage), seems far too familiar for legal comfort. Weren't we just here last summer, watching defiantly single guy Hugh Grant take life lessons from wise-beyond-his-few-years Nicholas Hoult? I seem to recall that the movie was about a boy or something; this one's about a girl, so, pardon -- never mind. (And one shouldn't confuse it with Nirvana's "About a Girl," which would have been a far better song title to swipe than the one used.) Universal might want to have its lawyers look into MGM's Uptown Girls; it's not as if audiences will, once they realize they can stay home and see a far superior version on cable thrice weekly.
It's ironic that Uptown Girls has as its director Boaz Yakin, who made his feature debut nine years ago with the squalid, drug-pushing drama Fresh; there's nothing at all brand-new about his latest stop at the ATM. Yakin's filmography, which includes Remember the Titans for Jerry Bruckheimer, now reads more like a cautionary tale than a proud man's résumé. He's the former indie filmmaker ground to bits in the studios' merciless machinery, the artist for whom "compromise" isn't an epithet but a shrugging necessity. What clichés he didn't find room for in the feel-good Titans he makes space for here, and you can almost hear him making justifications from behind the camera: I'll make this crappy movie, so I can afford to make the one I really want to do. Yakin, who once appeared as street as concrete, has abandoned filmmaking for fantasy-making, and a promising young director further loses his identity; Uptown Girls could have been made by anyone.
If Nick Hornby's About a Boy, adapted by Chris and Paul Weitz, revealed the secret solipsism of the modern male, the screenplay for Uptown Girls (written by three relative novices) deals with the ditziness of the modern woman -- hardly a fair trade-off. Brittany Murphy's Molly Gunn isn't defiantly selfish, obsessed only with being entertained by the toys of modern technology. She's merely spoiled and lazy, partying all night and awakening late each afternoon in a penthouse bedroom that looks as if it was a nursery only a week earlier. She hasn't made a choice not to work, as Grant's Will did in About a Boy -- she just doesn't know there's an option. It's only after an accountant skedaddles with her inheritance that she's forced to nanny the mollycoddled Ray (I Am Sam's Fanning), whose mom (Heather Locklear) runs a record label and doesn't have time to look after her daughter in between pre-parties and after-parties.
Molly and Ray's relationship is initially built upon insults and pratfalls: Ray tells Molly she "had shoes like that once, when I was 5," while Molly, suddenly let loose in the real world, does little more than fall down, take slamming doors to the face, cause washing machines to overflow with bubbling soap, and suffer numerous other embarrassments unknown to people not in the movies. Soon enough, of course, Molly discovers the root of Ray's prepubescent bitterness -- her father lies comatose in a room down the hall, where he's tended by 24-hour nurses -- while Ray teaches Molly to, oh, grow up already.
Yakin's relentless in his pursuit of the tear: He stages one scene in the teacup ride at Coney Island, another at a ballet recital, another in the coma-dad's room minutes before he kicks. He's so persistent in trying to wrangle a weeper out of this after-school soap that you almost think he's screwing with you; he's not holding back a tear, but winking at you, right? Not a chance.
The screenwriters really put Murphy, recently Just Married to Ashton Kutcher and seen melting in Eminem's mouth in 8 Mile, in a deep, deep hole. Given her performances in Spun and Don't Say a Word and Girl, Interrupted, in which she played various shades of scuzzy, she's game for almost anything; if she could act, you might even say she was the female Brad Pitt. But she's surrounded by the unlikable (Fanning is so odious and alienating, you wish only that she'd end up in a Dickens orphanage, or with one of those Magdalene sisters) and the unwatchable (Molly's shallow boyfriend, an English singer-songwriter played by Australian actor Jesse Spencer -- once an Olsen twins love interest -- has the screen presence of static). She's forced to carry this gruel a hundred miles in a wet paper bag, and she can't even get out the door.