The Nanny Diaries

If you ever sat through an anthropology class and dreaded every minute of it, do yourself a favor and skip “The Nanny Diaries”. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini‘s adaptation of the best-selling novel cries out for laughs and surprises, mostly trying to score as a social satire but unequivocally failing to do so. All we’re left with in the end is a 106-minute humdrum case study of how New York’s Upper East Side moms hideously miseducate their children.

In case you let the trailers fool you and come to the movie expecting a hilarious comedy, you’re in for a major disappointment. There’s not a single scene in the movie that will provoke more than a forced smile, and that’s mostly because nothing happens. Even Scarlett Johansson, who for many moviegoers is reason alone to put up with pretty much anything, looks mostly lost and confused, wrestling with a role that just doesn’t fit her.

Johansson stars as Annie Braddock, a small-town business graduate with no specific career plans, no goals and frankly, no ambition. She thinks it’s time for her to leave home, but she’s too afraid of the unknown. She likes anthropology, and prefers to look at the world the same way she looks at exhibits in the Museum of Natural History. Comfortable, isn’t it?

But when she gets a shot at a job in Manhattan, Annie digs up some courage and rushes to an interview at Goldman Sachs. Things don’t turn out the way she expected, and next thing she’s sitting at Central Park drowning in self-pity. That’s when she accidentally runs into young Grayer, whose mom Mrs. X (Laura Linney) is in desperate need for a new nanny. And before Annie gets the chance to say anything, she’s hired.

And that’s all for that. What follows is Annie observing Mrs. X’s unacceptable lifestyle and following her everyday commands. In addition to that, there’s the kid to look after, the ominous Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) to avoid, and the attractive next-door neighbor “Harvard Hottie” (Chris Evans) to turn down, since the mistress literally forbids the nanny to engage in a social life.

Yes, all she does is observing, and yes, that’s what anthropologists often do. Expect Annie to stand up to Mrs. X’s terror? Not this time. In this movie, nanny gets an order, nanny delivers, and if yelled at, nanny sits back and looks mousy. At the center of the plot lies Annie’s quest for self-confidence, and in this regard, the movie completes its mission. It is great for Annie to find herself, but is it equally exciting for us to watch her succeed? I don’t think so.

Johansson usually delivers a fabulous performance in pretty much any project she stars, but here she portrays a character that’s slightly too diffident for her standards. Linney, on the other hand, is a perfect casting choice for the tough role of Mrs. X, and eight-year-old Nicholas Art couldn’t be better as the little kid who wins the nanny’s heart. Chris Evans only has a few moments not to impress, and Alicia Keys‘ role as Annie’s buddy is completely unnecessary.

Pulcini and Bergman crafted a true masterpiece with “American Splendor,” so it’s all the more mysterious to me why they chose to take on a project with such a strong lack of subtlety and depth. Calling “The Nanny Diaires” a total bore would be unfair though, and the film indeed comprises a selection of watchable scenes and dialogue, particularly between Annie and Gayor. A cheesy soundtrack and banal direction don’t help make these diaries more intriguing. Where was Mary Poppins when we needed her most?

Review by Franck Tabouring