'The Nanny Diaries': Merely Poppins

Salt Lake City Weekly | August 20, 2007
At first glance, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus's best-selling The Nanny Diaries looked the pinnacle of snotty art: A couple of young women make bank watching the kids of Manhattan's beautiful people, then make even more bank for writing a fictionalized tell-all pissing on the foibles of those same beautiful people. But for all its broad satire of preoccupied absentee parenting, it was also a surprisingly wistful story of a fragile child desperately seeking stability. It was clear-eyed, funny and more than a little angry.

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini -- the documentary filmmakers who moved into features with 2003's American Splendor -- would seem to be the ideal choice for keeping a film adaptation of The Nanny Diaries focused on its unpleasant realities. Instead, they steer the narrative towards generic story elements and an artificial uplift that replaces the edginess of New York with the shiny happy gleam of Hollywood.

Scarlett Johansson stars here as Annie, a recent college graduate who seems destined for the corporate fast-track encouraged by her success-conscious single mother (Donna Murphy). But at an interview for an internship, Annie freaks out and heads to Central Park, where she saves a 5-year-old boy named Grayer (Nicholas Art) from near tragedy. His mother, Mrs. X (Laura Linney), mistakes Annie for an out-of-work nanny, and quickly offers her a job as Grayer's caretaker. And when she accepts, Annie has no idea that she is about to become babysitter, teacher, nurse, errand-runner -- and, for all practical purposes, mother.

The novel's coy roman-a-clef devices -- the generically-named employers, the protagonist's name as "Nanny," a romantic interest dubbed "Harvard Hottie" (Chris Evans) -- occasionally feel forced, by Berman and Pulcini cleverly fold them into the idea of minor-in-anthropology Annie viewing her job as cultural research. Early on, the upscale New York stereotypes are presented with a wink as museum exhibits, and the filmmakers slip surreal flights of fantasy into Annie's observations (like imagining herself on a Mary Poppins umbrella flight over the Upper Ease Side). For a while, it seems as though they're about to nail the wry perspective on their milieu.

It even seems that they could nail the relationship between Annie and Grayer. Johansson's an odd case as a performer, so preternaturally poised that it's hard to accept her in situations that are supposed to be embarrassing. But she develops a genuine rapport with the unfairly adorable Nicholas Art, whose wide open face suggests just the hunger for affection that Grayer doesn't get from his mother or workaholic father (Paul Giamatti). When Annie hesitates at leaving her job -- and the increasingly demanding Mrs. X -- it's easy to believe that it's because of her concern for abandoning this boy.

Where The Nanny Diaries falls flat is forgetting that Grayer is the emotional center of the story. Berman and Pulcini completely manufacture the sub-plot involving Annie's fear of disappointing her mother, spending far too much time on a journey towards a foregone mutual understanding. Annie's relationship with Harvard Hottie also takes up a larger percentage of screen time, though it's hard to fault any filmmaker for wanting to include more of budding star Evans. The few scenes devoted to the hard-won connection between Annie and Grayer end up forced to carry too much weight, and the consequences of severing that connection aren't taken seriously enough.

Of course, given the new, more upbeat direction that Berman and Pulcini take with the ending, the consequences don't actually seem that serious. After a "moral of the story" tirade by Annie that's just as unnecessary on screen as in print, the filmmakers choose to redeem a character who was more tragically interesting without an improbable epiphany. Annie, too, gets to walk into the sunset having learned something about what she wants from life, but The Nanny Diaries was never really about any of that. It was about a lifestyle where the hard work of being a parent is deemed too much for anyone with wealth and a full social calendar. The film, unfortunately, seems to deserve the same plea as the people it targets: Won't someone please think of the children?


**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Nicholas Art

Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Rated PG-13

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