Nanny Diaries, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Tone is the most noteworthy aspect of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's The Nanny Diaries. In adapting the best-selling 2002 novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the husband-and-wife team behind American Splendor have tried to keep their quills sharpened. The movie's attitude toward its subject matter is witty and satirical, at times (although not frequently enough) bordering on acerbic. Most of the film takes place in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where fathers and mothers are too busy with work and their own neuroses to worry about their children, so they pawn them off to nannies. Set in this self-contained, self-important bubble of a world, The Nanny Diaries makes pointed comments about the de facto class status that exists and the absurdity of a situation in which immigrants from other countries must leave behind their children to be cared for by others so they can come to the United States and babysit the sons and daughters of strangers. However, while the film's satirical approach reaches its target, The Nanny Diaries is weak dramatically, and that limits its overall effectiveness.

Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) has just graduated from NYU with honors. She has a B.A. in finance with a minor in anthropology. Her mother (Donna Murphy) is pushing her to get a job at a high powered accounting firm but when she flubs her interview, she decides that life may have something else in store for her. She discovers that "something else" in Central Park, when she saves a five-year-old boy, Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art), from being run over. Grayer's harried and distracted mother, Mrs. X (Laura Linney), is at her wits' end. She needs a new nanny in the worst way - taking care of her son is destroying her social life. When Annie introduces herself, Mrs. X hears not "Annie" but "Nanny" and immediately offers Annie the job. Because the pay is good and the accommodations are free, Annie accepts - a move she will soon regret. While she warms up quickly to Grayer and is attracted to the guy upstairs (Chris Evans), slaving for Mrs. X and her unfriendly husband (Paul Giamatti) proves to be a task sure to try the patience of a saint.

The Nanny Diaries does for home child care what The Devil Wears Prada did for the fashion industry. There are obvious similarities. Both are tightly paced and use exaggeration both for comedic effect and to illustrate larger points. Both feature young, naïve protagonists. And both have dragon ladies. While Laura Linney is no slouch in this department - in fact, she's probably the film's biggest asset - her character is less complex and lacks the ferocity of Meryl Streep's in Prada. To balance things out a little, however, Scarlett Johansson is less bland than the vanilla Anne Hathaway.

The Nanny Diaries makes snide but accurate comments about the lifestyle into which Annie stumbles. It's one where fathers are so busy making money and being unfaithful that they neglect their wives. Women fill up their schedules with meaningless social functions to avoid their children. Blind eyes are turned to extramarital affairs. White, English-speaking candidates are prized since most applicants for the job are immigrants. The children become unusually attached to their nannies because those caretakers are the only adults who spend more than token time with them. All of these things are captured and incorporated into The Nanny Diaries' story, which takes the unique stance of presenting Annie's time in the Upper East Side as an anthropological experiment that results in her "going native." Her voiceover remarks put things in perspective.

The problem with the movie is that, beyond the parody aspects and thin social commentary, there's little in the way of substance. As an individual, Annie is only mildly interesting. Her career struggles raise a shrug and her romantic entanglement with "Harvard Hottie" is tepid at best. The ending is perfunctory and unsatisfactory. When the screenplay isn't delivering pointed one-liners or tossing a biting observation at the audience, it often founders. The Devil Wears Prada had similar problems but its script as a whole was more solidly constructed. The satire was sharper and the drama less half-baked.

The Weinstein Company may have suspected they had something mediocre and unmarketable on their hands. The Nanny Diaries lost its original late spring release date and was bumped to one of the worst weekends of the year. In addition, it was only screened only for select critics. In concert, those portents auger a vote of "no confidence" and a fast trip from multiplexes to Netflix. It's not a great loss since this is the sort of ho-hum production that will likely seem less disappointing on a smaller screen.

Nanny Diaries, The (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2007-08-24
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1