Monday, August 27, 2007

The Nanny Diaries / **½ (PG-13)

Annie Braddock: Scarlett Johansson
Mrs. X: Laura Linney
Grayer: Nicholas Art
Harvard Hottie: Chris Evans
Judy Braddock: Donna Murphy
Lynette: Alicia Keys
Mr. X: Paul Giamatti

The Weinstein Company presents a film written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, based on the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for language).

Some might see “The Nanny Diaries,” or read the bestselling novel upon which it is based, and think that people like the parents in the story don’t really exist. But like the film’s Manhattan locations that I long to revisit in person, there really are parents this reprehensible. I don’t think this film exaggerates as much as we might hope.

“The Nanny Diaries” tells the story of Annie Braddock, a new college graduate who finds she is unsure of what she wants out of life. She dreams of pursuing anthropology but is being pushed by her mother into finance. Instead of pursuing either, Annie discovers the strange subculture of Upper East Side moms and their nannies during a somewhat typical Meet Cute with a six-year-old boy named Grayer (Nicholas Art). Grayer’s mom, who is only referred to as Mrs. X, mistakes Annie for a nanny, and Annie finds an unplanned direction for her life.

While Mrs. X is pleasant enough before she takes Annie on as her new nanny, she quickly becomes a tyrant. Annie develops an instinctual love for the boy and an appreciation for his situation, despite their rocky first days together. Before their bonding begins, Grayer’s terrorizing leads to a more unusual romantic Meet Cute with another resident of the X’s building, the man Annie refers to only as Havard Hottie (Chris Evans, “Fantastic Four”). However, one of Mrs. X’s many unreasonable rules is that Annie is not allowed to date.

The focus is squarely on the two women. Scarlett Johansson (“The Prestige”) is effective as the college grad who has yet to determine a direction for herself. And despite her natural beauty, the costume department has effectively given her the frazzled look of a nanny run ragged. As the decidedly more glamorous Mrs. X, Laura Linney (“Breach”) has the difficult task of portraying a monster who must also inspire sympathy from her victim. Linney is an actress of tremendous range who achieves her cold veneer effortlessly and adds the most minute, almost unnoticeable, dash of humanity. Mrs. X becomes a character we still don’t like, but we can understand her.

The writing-directing team of Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini use the fantasy life of Annie to add some visual artistry to a story that might have been told more basically in other hands. Annie sees her life as an anthropology study and imagines many of the character types she encounters as subjects in the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History. She also fantasizes a red umbrella that draws an appropriate parallel to another nanny tale, “Mary Poppins”. I couldn’t help but think, however, that if someone with Julie Andrews’ positive spirit were in this movie, it might be more fun.

Berman and Pulcini were responsible for the wonderful “American Splendor”, a biography of the comic book artist Harvey Pekar that also used fantasy sequences. “The Nanny Diaries” is a far more standard story treatment than that film. Somehow, despite the visually inspired fantasy sequences and the strong lead performances, this film never quite rises above its more pedestrian trappings. Annie’s best friend Lynette (Alicia Keys, “Smokin’ Aces”), for instance, seems only to exist to provide the profound observations of a true friend, which only seem to be articulated in the movies.

The treatment of the husband, Mr. X (Paul Giamatti “The Illusionist”), begins promisingly. Initially, I thought that I would be criticizing the filmmakers for casting such a wonderful character actor in the role as a man whose face is never seen. But after just two brief scenes where his features remain conspicuously concealed, Annie finally sees his face and the gimmick is left for dead. And while Mrs. X’s avoidance of her problems with her husband fits within their social structure, Annie’s reaction to Mr. X should be less mannered.

“The Nanny Diaries” is far from a bad film, but it is a little dull. It cooks on a slow simmer when it should boil and percolate. The comedy is never as funny as it should be. The biggest laugh comes from a kid crying in a George Bush mask at a costume party, while the main story inspires chuffs at best. And the tension between Annie and Mrs. X never builds or breaks. When Annie does finally confront Mrs. X about all the things she’s missing with her son, it isn’t really a confrontation at all. It compromises all of Annie’s passion and robs her of the release of facing her fears and forcing Mrs. X to face hers. Mrs. X’s reaction to this confrontation, while providing the closure that is not available in the book, is pretty far out of character.

This film may be enjoyable to fans of the book, and it is good to see Linney get another high profile chance to show us a real person on screen. But “The Nanny Diaries” could have used to be just a little more supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Buy it: Nanny books and movies

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