Eugene Weekly : Movies : 8.30.07


Lifestyles of the Rich and Thoughtless
Diaries doesn’t add up to much

THE NANNY DIARIES: Written and directed by Shari Springer Belman and Robert Pulcini. Based on the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Cinematography, Terry Stacey. Music, Mark Suozzo. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti, Nicholas Reese Art, Alicia Keys, Chris Evans and Donna Murphy. The Weinstein Company, 2007. PG-13. 105 minutes.

Annie (Scarlett Johansson) and Mrs. X (Laura Linney) in The Nanny Diaries

Miles separate the less-affluent suburbs of New Jersey and the posh Upper East Side of Manhattan — physical miles, financial miles, cultural miles. The Nanny Diaries, based on the bestselling 2002 novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, is certainly aware of this, but the flighty film never makes as much of it as you might expect. Like a slightly more class-conscious version of The Devil Wears Prada, The Nanny Diaries takes a young girl out of her comfort zone and into a world of thoughtless privilege in which the lass is terribly put-upon by a cold-hearted employer who might not be quite as bad as she seems.

But where Prada‘s devil, Meryl Streep, might have had unusual and interesting reasons for being so steely (the sexism of the workplace, the way it takes a different kind of effort for women to remain socially relevant and in power than it does for men), Nanny‘s Mrs. X (Laura Linney) is a more familiar character: a trophy wife, caught up in fussing, fretting, plotting and bossing in desperate hope of regaining the attention of her cheating husband (Paul Giamatti, being as nasty as he wants to be). As Mrs. X imperiously makes unreasonable demands of Annie the nanny (Scarlett Johansson) and ignores her child, a glimmer of humanity shows through in Linney’s eyes — but you’ll still want to sit her down and give her a good talking-to. Which, eventually, is what beleaguered Annie does — though she does it through the lens of a “nanny cam” in a teddy bear’s eye. Whether you can stomach what comes next without at least an eye-roll or two depends, I suppose, on your ability to believe that when faced with an angry ex-employee rattling off your worst failings, you’d be inclined to take their every word as gospel as opposed to, say, at least taking a moment to get defensive.

As for Annie, her story comes wrapped in a hit-and-miss conceit involving the anthropology minor’s “case study” of the Upper East Side residents. From time to time, the anthropological angle almost works, but it’s tangled up with misplaced flights of fancy and an apparent unwillingness on the part of the filmmakers to have much to say about anything. The film’s initial awareness of class grows more and more awkward as it becomes clear that Annie, who narrates her case study in voiceover, is actually making a study of herself, her reactions to this strange world, her growing certainty about what she wants to be. That’s all well and good, but it runs contrary to the anthropological introduction and waters down Annie’s character. It also allows the movie to brush over some of the more interesting things a more observant Annie might have noticed — like that she herself, with her ability to quit and go back to school, has considerably more privilege than the other nannies, or that even she seems inclined to blame Mrs. X for being cruel and heartless without looking at the effect Mr. X’s thoughtlessness has on his wife and son.

Johansson does a decent job as Annie, somehow muting her beauty and her gravelly voice until she almost seems like any other coltish, uncertain 21-year-old girl. But what she’s doing in this suburban fairy tale (complete with Prince Charming) is anyone’s guess. The Nanny Diaries takes an easy, bland path to Annie’s unsurprising self-discovery, peeking at but quickly dropping some complex ideas along the way. It’s harmless, but depthless as well — an almost satire lacking either bark or bite.