Despite Its Low Rotten Tomatoes Score, 'Uptown Girls' Is an '00s Classic
The 2003 movie starring Brittany Murphy and Dakota Fanning remains a wholesome treat.
I still remember the first time I watched a PG-13 movie. It could be because I can still recall how dramatic it felt -- being at a sleepover and waiting to hear the answer from other end of the landline when my friend's mom called my mom to ask if it was okay(!) -- but I'm pretty sure it's because I watched Uptown Girls. In fact, I don't know that I would've remembered the moment had I watched any other movie.
Now, nearly 20 years later, the 2003 Brittany Murphy-starring film directed by Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) is just as -- if not more -- fun than when it came out in theaters to dismal reviews. (See the Toronto Star's brutal assessment: "Can two over-pampered but fundamentally lonely persons of the blonde female persuasion bond meaningfully with each other while shopping?") About a childish heiress (Murphy) who's forced to get a job nannying for a neurotic 8-year-old (Dakota Fanning) when her accountant embezzles away her late rockstar father's fortune meant as her inheritance, Uptown Girls is a saccharine shot of '00s nostalgia. It goes all-out with its youthful playfulness in telling the story of a connection between two people who need each other and the other's perspective on life, and flaunts all of its whimsical qualities so you can experience the sweetness of their friendship, too.
That's exactly what critics at the time didn't understand about the movie, though: They panned it, deeming it too sweet for its own good. Today, it holds a mere 14% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Its original critics (primarily older and/or white men) could use a lesson from Murphy's Molly Gunn to lighten up, though: Were you to accept that this is a story largely about embracing girlhood, even as an adult, with all of its wonder, instead of holding the film's eccentricities against it, you'd see this is a sugar rush that's intentional and exceptionally worth the buzz. The flick is a downright confectionary -- even more so now because of how endearingly cemented in the aughties it is.
Despite the negative reviews, Uptown Girls has become an aughts classic. It may not be remembered as often as other hits from the period, like School of Rock or Holes, but it was and still is beloved by those who grew up on its shameless joy. (Just check the 2000smeme accounts on Instagram: The nostalgia is real.) The story, of a kid teaching a grown-up a thing about life and vice versa, might be predictable, but its optimistic, fairytale attitude about the possibilities of life when you allow yourself live like a child is hard to come by in movies today. As you may recall Fanning's great line as Loraine "Ray" Schleine, "Act your age, not your shoe size." This is about an immature 22 year old brightening up the rigid life of a young Upper East Sider, and with Yakin's direction that makes the film unfold like a storybook, the giddy sequences of the pair traipsing across NYC, and Murphy's infectious performance that imbues Molly with a girlish liveliness, Uptown Girls can't help but make you long for a bit of that whimsy in your own life.
Today, the magic of Uptown Girls isn't just its objective charm, it's how much of a throwback it is. Now, when many of us already pine for the '00s by resurfacing (albeit previously questionable) fashion trends and tuning into reboots of popular properties, it's a riot rewatching something that feels so drenched in the frivolity of the decade. It's as if the movie hits as many marks as possible that make it an aughties movie, from the fact that the protagonist is a party girl heiress reminiscent of Nicole Richie to the opening scene soundtracked by Sixpence None the Richer. The movie has more than one original pop rock song -- one of which is a bop literally about how sexy a set of Egyptian cotton sheets are -- and a pet pig, which feels exceptionally out of 2003. That much icing on a movie today might be unbearable, but Uptown Girls was unafraid to douse itself in as much glitter as possible, just for the hell of it, and its maximalism reflects its time.
It also can't be ignored that one of the reasons the film stands up as a part of the 2000s' past is because it's led by the late Brittany Murphy. Of course, it was unexpected when she died at just 32 several years later in 2009, but her role as Molly has remained a testament to what a great comedic actress she was, much like her unexpected voice role as Luanne Platter in 13 seasons of King of the Hill. Like her appearances in Clueless and Drop Dead Gorgeous, she was unafraid to be a screwball and her timing was impeccable -- it's a bittersweet treat to see that, with all of her inviting warmth, live on in this film.
Even with its ceaseless joy, what's actually most sincere about Uptown Girls is the portrait it paints about coming to terms with grief. Molly and Ray ultimately connect because they're both forced to face the death of a parent, regardless of how much they wish they could ignore it. It's why they both were forced to age inappropriately, as Ray grew up too quickly to lessen the pain of her comatose father and Molly having never grown up as to not accept her parents' deaths that happened years ago, and they recognize that in one another. While its handling of grief was undercut by critics -- many seeing it as treacly, melodramatic, or "bipolar" in bringing down the rest of the film's mood -- it's what makes the heartfelt movie so earnest. Nothing shows the film's magic quite like the scene when Ray runs away to Coney Island, the place Molly ran to when she was 8 years old after her parents died, and only Molly knows to find her there.
Early in the film, Molly's wannabe rockstar hook-up teases her that her lifestyle is like falling down the rabbit hole. She ignores him, though, knowing life is better spent when you try to see the world like it's a Wonderland -- which is how Uptown Girls plays out. Despite a bunch of skeptical Rays evaluating the movie upon its release, were you to ignore its low rating and (re)watch it today, you'd probably find that it'll leave you feeling a little bit more like Molly. It's like you're at a slumber party in 2003 -- and in between those recent Sex and the City binge-watches, browsing for your first pair of kitten heels in years, and keeping tabs on the Lizzie McGuire reboot, there's nothing that speaks more to pre-teen nostalgia than that.
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