When I saw the names Robert Pulcini and Shari Spinger Berman listed on the screen as the writers and directors of The Nanny Diaries, nothing registered with me. It was only as I called up the IMDB page for the film as reference in writing this review that I saw they were the directors of the awesome indie hit American Splendor. I wouldn't say knowing that changes everything, but it does transform what was a pretty okay little movie into something approaching a big disappointment.
Based on the popular novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (this is a story that apparently requires two people to tell it, regardless of the medium), The Nanny Diaries stars the delectable Scarlett Johansson as Annie, a recent college graduate with a minor in anthropology and a major in business. Unfortunately, she's been kidding herself that the major is something she actually wanted, and her first important job interview sends her scurrying off to figure out what life has in store for her. A chance encounter and a misheard name ("Annie" rhymes with...) leads her to being the caretaker for Grayer (soap kid Nicholas Art), whose own mother (Laura Linney) is too busy taking seminars on how to be a mother to actually do any parenting. She's the kind of overbearing employer that is so overbearing, her dedication to her psychoses so exacting, it inspires a sick kind of awe in Annie, and the young girl seeks to curry her boss' favor even more than she is repulsed by her. We only know this society dame as Mrs. X, as Annie is relating the tale to us as if it were an anthropological study, a peek into the modern family practices of New York's more well-to-do denizens.
This approach should have been the best thing The Nanny Diaries had going for it, but instead it's the largest missed opportunity. We start out well enough, the directing team coupling Annie's conversational narration with a playful visual style that leads us to believe the entire movie is going to have a heightened tone that will set it apart from your standard career girl fare. As Annie explains her predicament to us, we are treated to exhibits in a sort of Natural History Museum for Parenting, life-sized dioramas of Manhattan clans going about their business. Fathers exchange stocks with each other and dollar bills with strippers, mothers get expensive facials, and the nannies mind the youngsters. It's a cute way to begin, but it doesn't last. For most of the rest of the picture, outside of a few recurring daydream elements, the camera style is lazily conventional, complacently lulling us with just how average it all is. Only in the final stretch, when a videotaped confrontation breaks Scarlett Johansson out of the TV screen, are we reminded that there was a time in The Nanny Diaries when we felt like we were being promised that this kind of whimsy would be the norm.
That's where my disappointment with Pulcini and Spring Berman comes in. American Splendor was cleverly constructed to give a rather mundane story about everyday life an added visual verve. The directors had no boundaries. There was no fourth wall, much less the first three. They shifted gears through any number of styles without ever choking the clutch. So why not do the same here? The story is nothing fancy. It's The Devil Wears Prada but with little kids instead of high fashion. Children vomit because they are sick, models to lose weight, but the heroine still has to clean it up, whether literally or metaphorically. On its narrative face, The Nanny Diaries is pleasantly familiar, but a more engaging directorial hand could have made the movie something truly special.
Which is a bit over the line toward judging The Nanny Diaries for what it could have been rather than what it is--which is a pleasant entertainment. I love Scarlett Johansson, but she's been risking overexposure for the last couple of years. The Nanny Diaries is proof positive that all that working has been good for her acting muscles, as this is the most natural on screen that I've ever seen her. Though most often exasperated or angry, she is also tender and often quick-witted, handling chunky dialogue with ease. I'm not sure which is more impressive, that she holds her own well with a powerhouse like Laura Linney or manages to keep from getting dragged down by Chris Evans, the nothing of a love interest her directors couple her with. His inability to generate heat is ironic, given that he's the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies. (Then again, that's the plight of men in this decidedly chicky chick flick. Paul Giamatti is wasting his time in the Mr. X role. The character is so non-existent, his face is always just out of frame in the first several scenes, another sly tease of the visual tour-de-force The Nanny Diaries might have been.)
So, it's really Johansson's movie to save, and she definitely comes close. There's only so much she can do with the outline: girl loses way, girl ends up on the dark side, girl finds her way to the light. Had Pulcini and Spring Berman let loose in the manner they are truly capable of doing, they could have worked with their actress to elevate The Nanny Diaries and redefine the pseudo-genre. Instead, the movie hums along at an even pace, neither offending nor inspiring--a pretty low plateau for a recommendation, but a half-hearted movie can only yield half-hearted reactions.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.