Husband/wife Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor) direct and write The Nanny Diaries, an adaptation of the 2002 book written by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. The movie’s tagline – “a comedy about life at the top, as seen from the bottom”- could also be explained as “a playful life journey with decent drama and a few big laughs.” This average experience invites viewers on a journey to find themselves through rugged social terrain as classes and careers collide.
The directors produce some appealing visuals including a fantasy reference of the most popular nanny of all. Composer Mark Suozzo (an American Splendor crew veteran) creates a nice musical score that matches the excellent New York settings well. Glowing cinematography from yet another American Splendor vet Terry Stacey (In Her Shoes, Friends With Money) also strengthens the urban visuals. Still, even these strengths complemented by creative angle shots, graphic matches, and point-of-view techniques can’t overcome some notable flaws.
This movie suffers from casting miscues, predictable plot points and the unpleasant task of following the popular recent film The Devil Wears Prada, which explores a similar social class working relationship. The incredibly busy 22 year old actress Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, The Horse Whisperer) plays Annie Braddock, a recent graduate searching for a job… and herself. Along the way, two males enter Annie’s life.
One young man, named Grayer (Nicholas Art), is the son of a rich family who lives on the upper east side of New York. Their chance meeting initiates Annie’s life journey into fate and eventual fortitude. A stronger child actor would’ve strengthened the emotional bond with Annie. Audiences must settle for unnatural “puppy dog” looks and some weak reaction scenes. The other man, first known as “Harvard Hottie”, played by Chris Evans (The Fantastic Four, Cellular), initiates a mediocre romantic element. Eventually the hottie morphs into a unique man with a real name who (surprise, surprise) is more than he seems.
Johansson also narrates as the directors set up a nice story structure based on Annie’s true passion, anthropology. Grayer’s parents provide the real meat of the story, but Paul Giamatti (Sideways) is woefully miscast as the father, Mr. X, a self-centered businessman. Laura Linney (The Truman Show, Mystic River) fares better as Grayer’s mother, Mrs. X. Her centered performance presents an amazing example of tolerance and painful emotion. The names of the couple allow audiences to plug anyone into those roles while protecting the anonymity of the real couple (McLaughlin and Kraus based the book on their real life experiences).
Donna Murphy (Spider-Man 2) plays Annie’s Mom, Judy, a nurse who wants the best for her daughter. Singer Alicia Keys, who also supports Annie in the standard best friend role, makes a limited impression when Annie gets free time from her insensitive, overbearing employers. You understand Annie’s protective nature as her employers’ true colors reveal a tragic paradox to their astounding wealth, which many people might envision as the ultimate achievement of happiness and contentment. Annie quickly learns her place and allowable lines of communication (indirect mostly), which eventually lead to the foreshadowed ending.
The movie’s theme is simple. Rich people can gain power/influence over less fortunate people (summarized by another nanny during a break at a “Mommy and Me”). This movie explores both perspectives well, especially the negative elements. Nannies secretly undermine employers’ authority while the wealthy neglect their children’s glaring need for genuine parental love. Since Annie’s main motivator is money, she must discover her tolerance limits as she allows these powerful people to mistreat her.
Both social groups must decide how much power and money can influence their lives before they might lose all self-respect and well being. The awkward appearance of a key family member and an ugly display from Mr. X may leave you squirming a bit, but stay for the ending which improves this worthwhile yet only mildly entertaining feature. Recommended with reservations and rated PG-13 for language, sexual situations, and some intense verbal arguments.