This review was written for the festival screening of “The Nanny Diaries.”
“The Nanny Diaries” is the second feature film by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the writing-directing team who created the memorable grunge-comic epic “American Splendor.” The comedy has several inspired moments and a genuine flair for the satiric, but overall the film leaves you cold. Maybe it’s the subject matter — the woes and tribulations of a nanny working for a narcissistic and entitled Upper East Side family. Naturally, you scorn the family and would sympathize with a poor nanny from, say, Guatemala who desperately needs this job. But the film’s nanny is glamorous Scarlett Johansson, a college grad who uses the job to drop out of life for a while to sort out her goals and identity despite having no skills as a nanny.
The Weinstein Co. film has kicked around the release schedule for a while, and it’s easy to see why. Satire is hard to market. But at this point, you wonder why no one wanted to wait for September and school to begin. Friday’s release might be good counterprogramming, but the film isn’t likely to develop legs to carry it much beyond Labor Day.
The movie starts off well. Berman and Pulcini’s screenplay, derived from the 2002 satirical novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, imagines that its nanny, Annie Braddock, is an anthropology major from New Jersey. Thus, she scrutinizes her new environment as if she were studying the strange culture and tribal rituals of these overprivileged Manhattan natives. She even envisions them in diorama cases in the Museum of Natural History — species of an exotic world with only a vague connection to what most people would consider real life.
Another image and constant reference throughout the movie is Mary Poppins. This iconic nanny is everyone’s movie connection to the world of nannies, yet she is of course a children’s fairy tale heroine. A real nanny, Annie soon discovers, is a baby sitter, maid, dresser, dishwasher, delivery person and dog walker.
Many of these anthropological observations are sharp and comic, yet you can’t build a movie around them. Somewhere along the line, the family has to emerge from the world of caricature or it will possess no dramatic life. Unfortunately, it never does.
Annoyingly but tellingly, no one has a real name here. The family consists of Mr. and Mrs. X. The handsome and wealthy university grad upstairs is Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans). Even Annie soon becomes, simply, Nanny. Anyway, Mrs. X (Laura Linney, all-too-deadly accurate) is smug, selfish, snotty and entirely self-possessed yet blind to her husband’s indifference to her. Mr. X (Paul Giamatti, excellent yet wasted) is a total bastard, too consumed with mergers of the corporate and extramarital kind to play the role of paterfamilias.
Nicholas Reese Art plays the young son with adorable precociousness, but he has no real character. He’s a brat for a while and then, in a remarkable transformation a real-life nanny can only dream about, becomes a little angel. Nanny’s secret? She lets him eat peanut butter from a jar, apparently something no one on the Upper East Side would ever do.
Things heat up with Harvard Hottie, yet this feels like a tacked-on relationship having little to do with the movie, unless the filmmakers are suggesting that Annie’s best option is to become a trophy wife. Ditto her relationship with a best girl pal — played well by songstress Alicia Keys — that goes nowhere.
Johansson is game. There’s nothing to criticize in this performance, but there’s nothing to get excited about, either. It’s solid though uninspired work.
The same can be applied to this film. Unlike “American Splendor,” “Nanny” feels formulaic with a few cute touches but unmarked by the fierce wit of “Splendor.”
Production credits are smooth as silk as befit its haughty milieu.
THE NANNY DIARIES
MGM/the Weinstein Co.
Screenwriters-directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Producer: Richard N. Gladstein
Executive producers: Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Kelly Carnichael, Dany Wolf
Director of photography: Terry Stacey
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Music: Mark Suozzo
Costume designer: Michaeal Wilkinson
Editor: Robert Pulcini
Annie Braddock: Scarlett Johansson
Mrs. X: Laura Linney
Mr. X: Paul Giamatti
Grayer: Nicholas Reese Art
Lynette: Alicia Keys
Harvard Hottie: Chris Evans
Running time — 105 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13