The Nanny Diaries

September, 2007, Comedy

Directed by:Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Starring:Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti, Nicholas Reese Art, Donna Murphy, Alicia Keys, and Chris Evans

Best selling beach books do not always interesting movies make; but in the case of this adaptation of the surprising best seller, writer/directors  Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, (responsible for a handful of modestly successful previous efforts) deliver some amusing observations on that most exotic of nature’s fauna, the Upper-East Side matron. Neither biting enough to qualify as first-class social commentary nor sufficiently sentimental to succeed as romantic comedy, Nanny nevertheless delivers enough wry observations to earn a modest cinematic pat on the back, thanks to shrewd performances by Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti. They portray Mr. and Mrs. X, the well-heeled but dysfunctional employers of Annie Braddock, a lovely but confused college grad fresh out of school and clueless about her future. As appropriately under-played by Scarlett Johansson, the film’s leading lady, Annie is an interesting mixture; observant, self-conscious and alternately attracted to and repelled by the social mores of her employers and their social set.

The X’s are also the parents of Grayer, an adorable 5 year old boy neither parent has much time for. They hire Johansson to ride herd on him and to the surprise of no one in the audience, nanny and brat bond, providing Annie with a conflict; does she tell her bosses to kiss off and abandon Grayer or continue her role as urban serf to buffer him from Mr. X’s continued philandering and Mom’s all-consuming anxiety about her shaky marriage? 

There are few actresses with the ability to play a sophisticated tight-ass with the subtle style Ms. Linney possess; the condescending tone, artificial inflections and icy expressions she brings to bear are fascinating to watch even if the script makes Mrs. X a character perhaps too easy to dislike, which renders the plot’s resolution far less credible than it might have been. 

As Mr. X, Giamatti brings vigor and bite to his role as a financial vulture, interested solely in his own self-interest; here’s a depiction of endless veniality far more realistic than Michael Douglas in Wall Street or Tom Wolfe’s tawdry “Masters of the Universe” in Bonfire of the Vanities. Giamatti makes Mr. X someone to fear, not just intensely dislike; it’s a small role, but the actor makes the most of it.

Ms. Johansson’s career exploded with Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring, but with exception of her work as an adulterous social climber in Woody Allen’s Match Point, her subsequent roles in The Island, The Black Dahlia, and The Prestige haven’t provided anything to cheer about. Yet she displays a touching vulnerability here as a well-intentioned but rudderless young woman attracted by the sophistication of her employer’s lifestyle even as she’s repulsed by its values. Diffidence is a hard quality to convey on screen, but Johansson’s mastered it nicely and her off-again, on-again romance with a handsome preppy guy in her employer’s building has just the right poignant tone.

Berman and Pulcini know how to write solid dialogue and put talented actors through their paces, but their light touch with this material attempts to blend satire and romance with uneven success. Despite its frequent nifty bits and pieces, The Nanny Diaries can’t sustain the audience’s interest throughout its 106 minute running time. 

The verdict? Wait for a rainy night when you’ve nothing better to do and try it on DVD.  

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