The Cradle Will Fall
The Nanny Diaries is the fourth film from the husband-and-wife directing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. After two quirky documentaries, the duo hit paydirt with the deservedly acclaimed and gloriously nerdy American Splendor. Thus, it's strange that for their highest-profile picture to date, Berman and Pulcini would churn out such a flavorless cinematic dish. The Nanny Diaries should be a sign for these two filmmakers that the road less traveled is the more ideal career path.
In this dramedy, Scarlett Johansson plays Annie Braddock, a young college graduate who has her whole life ahead of her and absolutely no clue where to go next. Her mom (Donna Murphy) wants her to get a job in the financial field, and Annie is itching to do something with that anthropology minor of hers. As it turns out, a chance encounter in Central Park with a woman known only as Mrs. X (Laura Linney) and her five-year-old son Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art) leads to an altogether different occupation: a nanny. Before she can say "Mary Poppins," Annie is swept up and hired by the X Family to take care of Grayer -- which turns out to be a full-time job because his mom is a terminal shopper and Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) seems wrapped up in his work.
Although she starts off considering herself as just a glorified babysitter, Annie comes to love caring for little Grayer, which makes the prospect of leaving sometime all that much harder, especially as she starts to see the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. X fall to pieces before her eyes.
Last summer's The Devil Wears Prada was a welcome surprise, a summer sleeper that stole a bit of thunder away from Superman Returns and, having crossed well over the $100 million mark, became known as the little movie that could. Obviously, The Nanny Diaries is meant to follow in Prada's footsteps (or ride its coattails, depending on your personal level of cynicism), especially since a character holds a copy of The Devil Wears Prada novel in one scene.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but The Nanny Diaries takes things to an almost creepy, Fatal Attraction kind of level. Both movies (and their respective source books) share the same basic structure: bright-eyed heroine becomes a background player in a drama being played out on the highest rungs of the social ladder, eventually learning that "the good life" isn't all it's cracked up to be. However, whereas Anne Hathaway's character in Prada went through a predictable but reasonable arc, Johansson's Annie seems stuck in neutral.
To make a long story short, The Nanny Diaries is the two-hour equivalent of having someone tell you their job really stinks, and with every passing minute, you come to wish more and more that all the characters would be struck by the Common Sense Express. I can see where Berman and Pulcini are going with their storytelling approach, turning a seriocomic eye upon the world of rich, upper-class parents who spend more time skimming through catalogues than they do playing with their kids. But I'm surprised that having made an absorbing tale concerning the life of an ordinary schlub in American Splendor, the pair didn't bless The Nanny Diaries with a similarly loving or balanced tone. As is, The Nanny Diaries is about miserable people who would rather be doing something better with their time, and for this viewer, the feeling is mutual.
Johansson, cute as a button, gives a decent enough performance, and Linney tries her hardest to bring just a twinge of humanity to her role as high-strung control freak. Ironically, though, the men in the cast turn in the best acting here, with Giamatti in a brief but memorable appearance as the emotionally barren Mr. X and Fantastic Four's Chris Evans in a cliched but charming supporting role as Annie's love interest.
Don't get me wrong. The Nanny Diaries is not a terrible film. There's definitely potential here for another Devil Wears Prada. The movie lays the groundwork for a deliciously mean and sneakily sweet picture, but instead of creating the mountain it could have been, its filmmakers seem perfectly content with a molehill.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by MGM and rated "PG-13" for language.)