Uptown Girls is not only supposed to be about learning to act your age but also of the dangers of growing up too soon.
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of Brittany Murphy’s premature death. While there was some commemoration of the beloved star across niche sections of social media, the anniversary was fairly unacknowledged in comparison to that of other celebrity deaths from 2009, like Farrah Fawcett, Patrick Swayze or Michael Jackson. The actress, best remembered for supporting roles in Clueless, Girl, Interrupted and Drop Dead Gorgeous, appeared in some of the best films of her era, but died too young and too quietly to establish a lasting legacy. While Murphy’s fame stems from these supporting roles, the early 2000s brought us her brief attempt at A-list stardom, which included multiple leading film roles.
Murphy didn’t have the it-girl charm of Kirsten Dunst or Gwyneth Paltrow, she lacked the sassy girl-next-door quality of Reese Witherspoon and she certainly wasn’t the intense, suffering type like Hilary Swank. Thus, she landed right in the middle: charming enough to become the sleeper-hit equivalent of a household name, but apparently not unique enough to warrant amazing material. In other words, a lot of Murphy’s movies were bad and rightfully panned by critics. There was 2003’s Just Married, co-starring Ashton Kutcher, the rom-com equivalent of a bad family sitcom, and 2004’s Little Black Book, a dramedy about daytime talk shows that was just as messy as any episode of “Jerry Springer.” In between these flops, however, we were blessed with Uptown Girls, another dramedy about a rock star’s daughter who loses all her money and must work as a nanny for an uptight upper-class eight-year-old, played by Dakota Fanning. Heather Locklear portrays the girl’s neglectful mother and a pre-“House” Jesse Spencer appears as a budding recording artist for whom Murphy’s character falls hopelessly.
The film brought us one of Murphy’s best performances as party girl Molly Gunn, who must finally come to terms with reality and start growing up. But what makes both the character and Murphy’s portrayal so layered is that Molly is already too grown up in many ways: right after her father, Tommy Gunn, scored a solo hit with a song called “Molly’s Smile” when she was young, he and her mother were tragically killed in a plane crash. When we first meet Molly, she has been living frivolously off her parents’ estate and tries to always see the positive side in life. However, it is instantly clear that she has unresolved emotional issues stemming from her parents’ death, most evident when her life begins to crumble and all she can care about is getting Neal (Spencer) to pay her any attention. Having never held a job before, her friend Huey (Donald Faison) gets her in as nanny to Lorraine “Ray” Schleine (Fanning), a rigid, germophobic, anal-retentive young girl whose mother is head of a New York record label. Before long, it’s clear that these kindred spirits need each other—and we need them, too.
Much like Murphy’s other leading film roles, Uptown Girls received mostly negative reviews from critics. While most reviewers panned the plot, calling it cliché and unoriginal, they praised Murphy and Fanning’s performances and onscreen chemistry. While the film is predominantly about learning how to act your age, its subplot is definitely goofy—but in an endearingly loveable, early 2000s kind of way. After falling head over heels for Neal and self-sabotaging her first attempt at a job in a department store, Molly tries to get her life together while also still relentlessly pursuing the rock singer, newly signed by Roma, Ray’s mother. While he pays her minimal attention and accuses her of ruining his lucky jacket, Neal writes Molly an absolutely ridiculous song called “Sheets of Egyptian Cotton” that his label releases as his debut single. When he dumps her and Molly later finds him having spent the night with Roma, she—in what can only be described as the perfect allegory for everything going wrong in young adulthood—dramatically jumps off a footbridge in Central Park, only to find that the water below is incredibly shallow and polluted. “Lady! That water’s contaminated, you know,” calls out a passerby. “If you don’t get out, I’m going to call the police.” Even when life feels like it’s falling apart, a moment’s peace is scarcely found. In a tone deeply poetic to anyone who’s had to learn that life goes on, even when it’s going wrong, Molly calls back, “Yep, I’m getting out.” Afterward, upon watching Neal’s first music video that includes the lucky jacket she supposedly destroyed, it’s clear that Ray’s cynicism has rubbed off on her. “What a one-hit wonder that slut turned out to be,” she remarks.
Uptown Girls, if anything, is not only supposed to be about learning to act your age but also of the dangers of growing up too soon. Throughout the film, Molly both encourages and teaches Ray, who has become way too emotionally closed off for an eight-year-old child, how to have fun. It seems that her greatest flaw is that she doesn’t know how to act like a kid, but we can’t really hold that against her: her mother ignores her and is emotionally distant, not to mention virtually absent from her life. Her father, as we see, is comatose following a massive stroke, and Ray sees no point in spending time with him or telling him how she feels. “He’s a vegetable, Molly.” But Molly teaches her that there’s therapeutic value in expressing how we feel, regardless of whether another person is listening. Before we know it, Molly Gunn is more Mister Rogers than she is a party girl: the film wants us to believe that she’s a privileged, irresponsible rich kid who is forced to grow up only when she loses all her money, but that’s not true. Molly, like Ray, grew up way too fast as a child, suffered the consequences and doesn’t want that for Ray. We see Molly’s hidden maturity when she instantly goes into a protective, parental mode over a girl she barely knows. Molly’s strength and vulnerability is always there, just beneath the surface.
By the end of the film, Molly has decided to move on from couch-surfing in her friends’ apartments and being Ray’s nanny. “Grown-ups never stay friends with kids,” Ray tells her. Molly jokes that she doesn’t see any grown-ups there. “I do,” Ray smiles. Neal also tries to get back together with her, claiming she was his artistic inspiration. “All you do is take and I’ve got nothing for you right now,” she proclaims. Realizing a talent in fashion, Molly receives an interview for design school, using Ray’s mantra to seal the deal—fundamentals are the building blocks of fun. Rushing out to the girl’s final ballet recital, she’s met with a surprise performance in her honor: Neal, having bought all of her father’s guitars from auction, performs “Molly’s Smile” while the ballet class does a freestyle dance, something Molly had tried to get Ray to embrace earlier. Until then, we could only assume that Molly’s lessons had left their mark on Ray, but now we know for sure. “Every story has an end, but in life, every ending is just a new beginning,” says Ray in a voiceover. It’s just cliché enough to warm your heart. To quote Renée Zellweger in Judy, “It’s about hope. And we all need that.”