(No longer in theaters)
Comedy, Drama, Romance
Richard N. Gladstein
Aug 24, 2007
The Nanny Diaries, based on Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s best-selling novel (a roman à clef), is a grim slog. Scarlett Johansson plays Annie, an unaffected, adorably clumsy Jersey girl who “doesn’t know who she is.” Shanghaied in Central Park by Mrs. X (Laura Linney), she is thrust into the Upper East Side world of inattentive gazillionaires, self-obsessed trophy wives, and children at once spoiled and neglected. The perspective of the writer-directors, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor), is both contemptuous and envious—which is honest, I suppose, given New York’s ever-burgeoning income gap and the bitterness of its have-nots and have-not-enoughs. (That ambivalence is, admittedly, a motif of this magazine, which the heroine dips into before taking her job.)
The filmmakers’ vantage has its pluses and minuses. The Nanny Diaries opens in the Museum of Natural History, where Annie, a student of anthropology, places Upper East Side child-rearing rituals in a world-historical context and apologizes to the audience in advance for the odd stereotype. Derivative of Mean Girls but very good: Most American movies downplay issues of class and privilege; this one creates museum tableaux to illustrate them. But what follows is nothing but stereotypes—and an argument for why anthropology should inform drama rather than shape it. Your first look at a character tells you everything you need to know. As you watch the nannies mistreated and the children left to cry themselves to sleep, the only surprise is that there are no surprises. It’s zombie-land.
Linney looks sleek and pretty. She’s the best thing in the film, although she has given this performance before, her face a tight mask under which you catch glimpses of a frightened human being. In some ways, she kills the comedy—poor Mrs. X is so obviously suffering. (In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep didn’t let the flickers of humanity upstage the mythic bitchery.) But Johansson is even less of a comedian. She’s funny when she uses her drugged sexiness to convey lazy entitlement, as in Ghost World. But peppy and eager to please is a stretch. She’s uncommitted from the outset. As Mr. X, the myopic horndog mergers-and-acquisitions tycoon, Paul Giamatti seems just as checked-out as his character. Alicia Keys plays the free-spirited black friend and Chris Evans the rich guy upstairs—the “Harvard hottie” whose ardor allows Annie to reject the Upper East Side but potentially marry into it. The movie shouldn’t open in the Museum of Natural History but the Museum of the Moving Image—with a display of chick-flick clichés through the ages.