Fresh out of college, Annie (Scarlett Johansson) is on the hunt for a job in New York City. Falling into her lap one day is Grayer, a young boy with a high-maintenance mother, Mrs. X (Laura Linney), in desperate need of a nanny. Taking the job while trying to hide her service from friends (Alicia Keys) and her mother (Donna Murphy), Annie joins the exclusive nanny club of Manhattan, opening her eyes to the way business is conducted in these rich and powerful circles, fighting to protect her sense of self in the process.
Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are following their critical success with the eccentric Harvey Pekar story, "American Splendor," with this airy tale. After a summer of watching films that thrive on chaos and noise, it's a cool breeze to watch the two filmmakers exercise a great deal of control over "Nanny." It's not exactly a Kubrickian essay of obsessive filmmaking mastery, but one can sense "Nanny" is going somewhere, instead of stumbling over mishaps and melodrama.
Now, there's a lot of New York City culture clutter that defines the material, and it's very tiring running through the same WASPy, privileged, cookie-cutter characterizations we've all seen a thousand times over. Berman and Pulcini structure "Nanny" as an anthropological diary, using Annie's professorial voiceover and Natural History Museum visual aids to border the events of the film with an informational tone, opening the look of the movie while also gently rubbing a satiric element into the meat of the screenplay. While not a stylized feature, there remains a conscious effort on the part of the directors to help lift Annie's journey and lend it a special pace through complex shot constructions and appropriate transitions. For the most part, "Nanny" is a trim and sprightly piece of Noo Yawk playground fantasy.
When back in more domesticated realms, "Nanny" utilizes a steady stream of terrific performances, especially from Johansson and Linney. The actresses have the unlucky task of making two very unpleasant characters enjoy cliché without wallowing in it. Using Johansson's naiveté to battle Linney's ice queen, "Nanny" serves up juicy bits of stomach-churning confrontation and comedy, with Annie forced to walk barefoot on broken glass for a hideous human being, all for a kid she feels pity for.
Certainly Johansson has the lighter role, and she plays it wonderfully, embracing Annie's wonder while slowly leaking acid into the character as the humiliations mount. However, there's real skill in Linney's portrayal of Mrs. X. While digging into the juicer fragments of sadism the character relishes, Linney is able to bring out the wounded side of the role, as Mrs. X endures her husband's philandering ways (encapsulated with wet-lipped doughy lust by Paul Giamatti) and the razor-sharp network of judgment that keeps the Upper East Side in check. It's one clean, finely-tuned piece of acting.
"Nanny" begins to show unmistakable signs of the adaptation blues as it attempts to pencil in time with love interest Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans) and still deal with Annie's wilting world of childcare. The directors show less confidence with the romantic comedy aspects of "Nanny" than they do the rest of the picture, which renders the second half of the film more scattershot in approach, though it must be said Berman and Pulcini find a suitable closer to what appears to be rather intricate source material.
"Nanny Diaries" is frothy fun, and fights familiar material battles with some degree of originality. It's an appealing, button-pushing picture with dynamic performances that help numb the familiarity of it all.