Why can’t I get away from the feeling that The Nanny Diaries isn’t getting a fair shake from a lot of critics? Why does a small voice keep saying to me, “If this movie had been directed by Marc Lawrence (Music and Lyrics), it wouldn’t be getting nearly so much abuse”? The truth is that husband and wife filmmaking team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have the misfortune to have made an art-house fave a few years ago, American Splendor (2003), and the critics who raved about it are now appalled to find that the filmmakers have lowered themselves to making a romantic comedy—albeit one with at least a smattering of sociological import.
Maybe I’m able to shrug and say, “So what?” because even though I thought American Splendor was good, I never quite bought into its status as some kind of cinematic holy writ. I mean with the release of The Nanny Diaries it’s not as if they just drew all over the Sistine Chapel with a big box of 64 Crayolas. They made a pleasantly harmless little movie with a couple of pretty sharp performances and decked it out with a few pointed observations about the class system that we like to pretend doesn’t exist in America. This is not a crime. And frankly, the fact that they made a movie where the very sight of Chris Evans didn’t make me want to send for the smarminess police is a pretty major accomplishment in itself.
No, it’s not a great picture. At best, it’s a less witty The Devil Wears Prada (2006)—something unwisely stressed by showing a character (Judith Roberts, Dead Silence) reading that very book in the film. The situations are similar—young innocent girl fresh out of school runs afoul of the New York elite—and the tone isn’t very different, except that The Nanny Diaries is both more and less conventional and a good deal less funny.
Stylistically, it’s a more ambitious work. The decision to present the inhabitants of New York as a series of dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History is both amusingly clever and apt, as is presenting the story in terms of an anthropological field guide being done by heroine Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson). Similarly, the various references to Mary Poppins—ranging from the charmingly quaint depiction of an umbrella-powered Annie to the tune on her cell phone—are pleasant touches.
As for the film’s attempts to be something more than a romantic comedy, there’s an inescapable, yet unforced, recognition of not just the class system, but also the existence of a caste system when it comes to nannies. There’s never any doubt that Annie is a trophy nanny—a status symbol for Mrs. X (Laura Linney)—because she’s attractive, white and speaks English. But there’s an irony inherent in this, since Mrs. X is herself a trophy wife. For that matter, some of the casual cruelties and assumptions about Annie are grounded in Mrs. X’s inner knowledge of her own position in life—a position she tries to deny.
On the other hand, much about the film is grounded in fairly obvious and occasionally flat-footed romantic-comedy terms. The very manner in which Annie finds herself in the position of becoming a nanny is a prime example. At loose ends after college, having no idea what to do or really even who she is, she happens to be in Central Park when Mrs. X’s young son, Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art, Syriana), is nearly run down by a guy on a Segway. (Being killed by someone on a Segway would undoubtedly be the height of personal embarrassment.) Thinking fast, Annie pulls the child to safety, whereupon Mrs. X mistakes “Annie” for “nanny” and tries to hire her on the spot. The whole setup is nothing more than a slightly clumsy variant on “meeting cute,” a device the filmmakers clearly love, since they trot it out again when Annie first encounters “Harvard Hottie” (Chris Evans) right after Grayer has pulled her pants down. Moments like these are what keep The Nanny Diaries from being the film it clearly wants to be. That they work at all is largely grounded in the performances of Johansson and Linney.
There’s also a clunkiness to the film’s big scene in which Mrs. X gets her comeuppance via Annie’s speech captured by the hidden “nanny cam.” It’s not bad, but neither is it completely believable, because it’s just too easy. Again, it’s something that works as well as it does because of the acting—in this case, because of Laura Linney, who manages to imbue Mrs. X with little flickers of self-realization throughout the film. As a result, her moment of awakening seems less facile than the film itself has any right to expect. It’s still too pat—as is her sudden comprehension that Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) is pretty much a complete louse—and it heads too clearly toward the kind of happy ending that The Devil Wears Prada largely avoided, but it isn’t bad. In the end, The Nanny Diaries is an agreeable time at the movies even if it’s not anything like a great movie. Rated PG-13 for language.