The Nanny Diaries is an interesting film that doesn't overstay its welcome, nor require that much from its audience. In many ways it can be likened to last year's surprise The Devil Wears Prada. Both tales tell the story of a fresh-faced young woman seeking to find herself following graduation. In Prada's case it featured Anne Hathaway seeking a career in journalism and finding a job as an assistant at a magazine. It was definitely an entry point, but not exactly what she was looking for. In the case of Diaries, Scarlett Johansson interviews for a job with a business degree, but realizing she doesn't know what she wants, tumbles headlong into a nanny gig.
While the two follow similar paths with their young stars and the combative relationship between them and their bosses, the difference lies in the tone. Prada proved to be a delightfully subversive gem whereby Hathaway is changed and molded into what her boss is looking for. The Nanny Diaries is a bit more sweet-natured in its approach to its lead, and perhaps even a bit more compassionate toward the boss. That does not make it a better film, as the end result is moderately entertaining, but ultimately a little bland and flavorless, especially coming on the heels of the Kool-Aid drinking of The Devil Wears Prada. Okay, I can practically see you rolling your eyes: "What's with all the Prada talk?" I promise to move away from that. I can't help seeing the similarities, which led to a nagging familiarity as I sat there in the theater.
Annie Braddock (Johansson) has just graduated college. She has a degree in business with a minor in anthropology, and if you couldn't guess, her love lies with the minor while the major seems to be more for appeasing her mother. The problem is that she quickly discovers she does not know who she really is or what she wants to do. This is revealed during her very first job interview where she is unable to answer: "Who is Annie Braddock? In your own words."
Annie finds herself in Central Park giving some thought as to who she is. It is a question that is about to be answered by a chance encounter with young Grayer, a precocious pre-schooler who Annie saves from a careless bicyclist. Mistaking the word Annie for nanny, Grayer's mother (dubbed Mrs. X) invites her to interview for the recently vacated nanny position. And so begins Annie's journey into the treacherously self-obsessed culture of the upper crust on the Upper East Side. It is a dangerous jungle filled with those seeking to satisfy themselves, where the women spend their days shopping and planning parties, the men are absentee husbands and fathers, and children are accessories that are to be shuffled off to the omnipresent nanny.
The Nanny Diaries does not tread much new ground here in terms of telling us that which we didn't already know. It seems to want to get into the deceptively sweet tale with an undercurrent of cruelty, but never seems to take off; rather, it just floats by, content to take the easy route, with more than a few references to Mary Poppins, and even a nod to Prada (a character can be seen with a copy of the book).
What I did really like about the movie was the framework. It uses the anthropology minor of Annie Braddock as a bracketing device, hence the nicknames to protect the innocent (ex: Mr. and Mrs. X, Harvard Hottie). The film features Annie as narrator, telling of her adventure into the nanny jungle as an anthropological study. She has entered the nanny workforce, using her newfound position as an opportunity to do a little research on these elusive creatures in their natural habitat. Using this device, we are given a slightly more objective observation of this social circle which has a completely different set of rules than those of the rest of us.
The Nanny Diaries was directed by the husband and wife team behind the terrifically nerdy American Splendor, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They were also responsible for the screenplay, based on the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. This outing seemed to be targeting the crowd pleaser rather than making any attempt at real insight. Sure, a lot could be read into what we get in terms of navigating the social waters and dealing with children and disagreeable employers who have their own issues. Still, it seems that whatever can be read into the film is more in spite of what is offered rather than because of what is offered.
The performances are all serviceable. Scarlett Johansson is as cute as ever, but she comes across as being rather bland, she never seems to take control of the character. Laura Linney attempts to bring a semblance of humanity to her role as Mrs. X, but it was too little too late. She does a fine job of being the demanding boss, though. Paul Giamatti gives the most memorable performance as the emotionally bankrupt Mr. X. Alicia Keys also does a decent job in her second big screen assignment, playing Annie Braddock's only friend. Also, while not a performance per se, the music works really well, adding a little bit of flavor. Credit to Mark Suozzo for his contribution.
Bottom line. It is a nice enough movie that makes for decent diversionary entertainment. This has to be considered a missed opportunity for something more. Perhaps if it didn't come on the heels of Prada (I know, sorry) it would have had a bit more of an impact. Or if the creative team had a little stronger handle on it this could have been something special. In the end, it is not a bad movie, offers up some cute humor. You could do much worse.