the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Nanny Diaries

The Nanny Diaries takes place in an urban fairy tale version of our own reality in which colors pop just a little bit brighter, men and women are just a little bit more beautiful, villains are just a little bit more repugnant, and a poor girl from New Jersey can fly around Manhattan on a red umbrella like Mary Poppins—at least in her imagination.

Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) is a recent college graduate who got a minor in anthropology because it is her dream and a major in business because it is her mother’s dream. It’s not that her mother (Donna Murphy) is controlling. She simply wants her daughter to be successful and live comfortably, something the full-time nurse has not been able to achieve herself. When Annie flunks out of an interview for a lucrative banking position in New York City, she wonders how she is going to tell her mother she didn’t get a job she didn’t want in the first place. That’s when she meets Mrs. X (Laura Linney) and her cherubic son Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art). Mrs. X’s name is, of course, not Mrs. X, but ever the budding anthropologist, Annie ascribes informal and scientific designations to those people she meets.

Through a name mix up with her own, (Annie sounds an awful lot like nanny), Annie is offered a job as Gavin’s caretaker. Mrs. X is kind and beautiful, belonging to that rarified Upper East Side milieu known as Park Avenue. Her apartment is immaculate and opulent and she promises that Annie will accompany them to fine restaurants and trips abroad. Unsure of her employment options, Annie accepts the job, telling her mother that the bank came through. Of course, things immediately go downhill, as we knew they would. Mrs. X turns into a narcissistic, condescending control freak who sleeps until noon and bemoans long afternoons choosing caters and attending benefits. She is terrified of her own son and foists all motherly duties from the most mundane to the most sacred on Annie. Work-obsessed Mr. X (Paul Giamatti), is rarely ever home and when he is, either sees right through Annie or sees her as just one more extramarital conquest.

Annie’s one happiness is in being pursued by the guy upstairs whom she has designated the Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans) even though she is strictly forbidden to date, especially guys so far out of her league. As Annie tries to keep her mother from discovering her charade, she must also wrestle with long hours, impossible demands, and the cardinal sin, becoming emotionally attached to her young charge.

The Nanny Diaries is based on the 2002 satirical novel by the same name. A scathing portrait of posh Park Avenue families as seen through the eyes of the lower class nannies who manage their daily affairs, the book swims in the same stream as The Devil Wears Prada but is unable to capture Devil’s witty spark and satirical bite. This is surprising, given the fact that the co-writer/co-director’s of 2003’s subversive American Splendor, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, are at the helm here.

The Nanny Diaries is an unexceptional comedy that only occasionally rises above standard sitcom fare. Sure, it’s fun to mock the hollow existence of the moneyed class, and sure, it’s good to point out that the grass is not always greener just because the wallets are. But the film so relies on stock caricatures that the satire falls flat and ineffective. Even actors as exquisite as Linney seem to fight through the script for moments where authentic humanity can crack through the stereotypes. For her part, the always astonishing Linney succeeds — but just barely. By painting with too broad a brush, Nanny gets laughs at the expense of any sort of deeper commentary, a deeper commentary the filmmakers were obviously hoping to achieve.

The performances are solid. While Johansson and her underrated comic sensibilities do little to stand out (she can’t dazzle us in every film), she does a good job as a culture/class shocked girl in frumpy clothes set amongst the glittering extravagance of New York high society. If Johansson’s beauty and sexuality is deemphasized, Linney is luminescent as a trophy wife who has heard her culture’s lies so often she has forgotten what really matters in life. Giamatti’s part is not large, but he makes the most out of what he has as Linney’s emotionally toxic husband, obviously reveling in a string of bad guy roles this summer. Evens, with perhaps even less to do, is nonetheless charming and along with his role in Sunshine is doing a good job of breaking his The Fantastic Four typecasting before it has a chance to set for life. Songstress Alicia Keys also competently adds a few scenes as Annie’s best friend.

Annie narrates the film through a sort of anthropologist’s journal, dispassionately recording the pampered lives and rituals of her new world with scientific precision. It is a delightful avenue into Annie’s mind, especially when she imagines the self-absorbed tribe in which she’s found herself as part of static dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History, posed in their exotic environments like the Pigmies or the Aborigines down the hall. Sharp and comic, these moments only heighten the fairy tale aspects of the script. But even fairy tales have characters with more dimensionality then these.


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