Nanny Diaries, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/24/07 00:01:38

"The Devil Buys Pampers"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“The Nanny Diaries” focuses on a talented and promising individual who winds up slumming at a job far beneath her capabilities and finds herself trapped in one embarrassing and humiliating situation after another while desperately trying (and failing) to justify her decision to people who know that she is capable of so much more. This is somewhat ironic because the film itself has been made by talented and promising individuals, both in front of and behind the camera, who are themselves clearly slumming at jobs far beneath their capabilities and who will no doubt spend the next couple of weeks hitting the talk-show circuit to desperately try (and presumably fail) to justify their decisions to people who know that they are capable of so much more. I know that the combination of the talent involved and the property that brought them together, an adaptation of the 2003 chick-lit bestseller by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus, makes it sound reasonably appealing but for the most part, the end result is a shrill and silly misfire that comes across like an exceptionally expensive piece of television–either a sitcom or a Lifetime Original Movie–than a real movie.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson as Annie Braddock, a recent college graduate who, as the story opens, is torn between taking a job on Wall Street to satisfy the dreams of her mother (Donna Murphy), who has worked herself to the bone to give her every opportunity, or going to graduate school in order to pursue a lower-paying but more personally fulfilling career in studying anthropology. While sitting in Central Park and dithering about what to do, she saves a young boy named Grayer (Nicholas Art) from getting run over by a cyclist and makes the acquaintance of his mother, an Upper East Side socialite known only as Mrs. X (Laura Linney). Mrs. X mishears Annie’s name as “Nanny” and immediately offers her a job as Grayer’s new nanny–the last one just left to get married, we are told. Of course, Annie has absolutely no practical experience in child-rearing but as she soon discovers, the fact that she is a white, English-speaking college graduate makes her “the Chanel bag of nannies.” Figuring that it will be an easy and well-paid way to delay her own life for a year or so, Annie decides to take the job and moves into the X’s luxury apartment while lying to her mother about what she is really doing with the help of best pal/voice of wisdom Lynette (Alicia Keys).

Once ensconced in those swanky digs, Annie quickly discovers to her shock and surprise that the job isn’t going to be as easy as it first appeared to be. Grayer is a spoiled little monster who has been raised into a life in which parents have no time for them, common things like peanut butter and the West Side are to be feared and rejection from the right pre-school pretty much means that his entire life is already over. As for his parents, Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) is a largely unseen presence who spend more time with his work and his barely concealed affairs than with his wife and son while Mrs. X is a grotesquely self-involved monster who only refers to Annie as “Nanny” and who devotes her time to round-the-clock shopping and endless meetings in which she and other moms congratulate themselves for being caring and attentive mothers while their children are shunted off into an adjoining room with the employees that are actually raising them. Before long, Annie is miserable and exhausted and both Lynette and Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans), a trust-fund hunk who lives in the same building as the X’s, implore her to quit before she completely loses it. This is easier said than done because Annie has unexpectedly bonded with Grayer and she decides to stick it out in order to help protect him from the insanity of his parents and their obviously disintegrating marriage.

Those with longish memories will no doubt note that the plot of “The Nanny Diaries” sounds strikingly similar to “The Devil Wears Prada” (though it should be noted that it was published more than a year before “Prada”) and as I was watching it, I began to realize that many of the problems that I had with the film were similar to those that I had with the film version of “Prada.” For starters, there wasn’t a single aspect of the film that I believed for a second. This might sound strange when you consider that the source material was a book written by a couple of ex-nannies and much of its initial popularity came from readers trying to determine which of the various outrages were based in fact and who could possibly served as the models for the X’s. And yet, too many of the scenes seen here feel like they come from a book of time-honored sitcom cliches or a primer on Level One screenwriting than from real life. For example, there is the very idea that a high-maintenance and overly neurotic type like Mrs. X would cheerfully hire a strange woman with no references or qualifications to raise her child without subjecting her to a battery of interviews and investigations before giving her the job. Now, having never been able to successfully hire someone resembling Scarlett Johansson as a nanny personally (mostly because the applicants tend to get a bit skittish when they discover that there are no small children involved), I am perfectly willing to concede that the market for a white, English-speaking nanny is so great that such seemingly obvious precautions would be overlooked. However, considering the near-psychotic, if arms-length, obsession that Mrs. X has towards every aspect of her child’s life, this particular aspect of the story feels false and since the entire film is built upon it, everything else begins to smell a little bit as well.

Another problem–a bigger one than the believability factor–is the simple fact that I didn’t like any of the characters or find them even slightly interesting. I know instinctively that I am supposed to be rooting for the put-upon Annie as she struggles to maintain her sanity amidst the increasingly irrational home life of the X’s, sympathizing with her as her bond with her young charge grows in unexpected ways, cringing with her as she betrays her true self to her mother and best friend and swooning with her as she slowly begins to fall for the Harvard Hottie. And yet, I didn’t find myself doing any of those things because I didn’t feel a single one of those emotions for a second. Instead, I found her to be a spoiled, self-absorbed little twerp–as much so as the socialites that she decries–with nothing of interest to say and nothing to offer the world outside of a vague sense of petulance, partly due to the thinness of her character and partly due to Johansson’s desultory performance in a role that really needed a Julia Roberts type for it to work. As a result, the idea of her completely losing her soul and personality as the result of her nightmare job–a notion reiterated by her mom, best friend and would-be boyfriend throughout–ring especially hollow because we never get a real sense that she actually possesses any of these qualities, let along runs the risk of losing them. As Mrs. X, Laura Linney does what she can with the role in order to give it some kind of nuance but is hampered by the fact that it has been conceived as such a one-note character that she is unable to offer up more than several variations of brittle nastiness. (At least in “The Devil Wears Prada,” you could at least admire Meryl Streep’s character because it had some shadings to it and because, quite frankly, her demanding and driven nature served to underscore the fact that she was more often right than wrong.) As for the rest, Paul Giamatti is dependably smug as the rotten Mr. X, Nicholas Art is dependably adorable as Grayer and Alicia Keys is dependably level-headed as the sensible-yet-token voice of black wisdom (you keep waiting for someone to slip and call her Lando by mistake) but none of them get to do anything beyond that thanks to their dullness of their roles. It should say a lot when I note that perhaps the single most successful performance in the film comes from Chris Evans, an actor whose presence usually sets my teeth on edge–here, he finds the right note as the rich kid who might have more going on than just a trust fund.

The most disappointing aspect about “The Nanny Diaries,” however, is that it was written and directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini as the follow-up to their wonderful 2003 debut “American Splendor,” a film as brave, quirky, funny, wonderfully acted and resoundingly human as you could possibly want. Those qualities, among others, are not to be found anywhere here–outside of some amusing visual touches in the early going (such as a series of museum dioramas offering anthropological views of contemporary New Yorkers), this is filmmaking as bland and flavorless as it gets. Like most filmmakers shooting in New York, they seem to be unconsciously aping the style of Woody Allen–an understandable approach, I suppose, but based on the evidence here, it seems as if the only Allen films that they have seen are “Celebrity” and “Anything Else.” When I heard that they were going to be doing this as their second film, I was both confused–why would they want to waste their energy and creativity on something that anyone with the ability to focus a camera could presumably pull off?–and intrigued to discover what it was about the material that lured them into doing it. Having seen the film, I still don’t have the answer to either of those questions and all I can presume is that after the unexpected success of “American Splendor,” they were at a loss as to what to do next and decided, much like their heroine, to take a seemingly cushy job in order to make some seemingly easy money while putting their own creative lives on pause for a while. Too bad that they presumably agreed to this before actually sitting down to read the book they were about to adapt and discovering just how bumpy the easy road can be. If they had, I suspect that they would have sent their regrets to Mr. W(einstein) and gone off to do something else that would have made them and us much happier in the long run.

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