The Reeler


August 23, 2007

The Nanny Diaries

Complacent tone and strangely tame direction make for boring Diaries entry

The color scheme dominating The Nanny Diaries is bright and simple, much like the drama. Here we have a tame little movie -- slightly over-hyped due to its stellar cast -- that exists in a faultless world. Diaries (based on the supposedly semi-autobiographical novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus) seeks to expose the dark side of Manhattan affluence through eyes of an innocent observer, but that tactic is better served in The Devil Wears Prada. In this case, the mood is self-contradictory: middle-class strife is contrasted with Park Avenue snobbery, but a complacent tone homogenizes both realms.

At least Prada provides an ambitious protagonist as a source of empathy. In Diaries, Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson), accepts a nanny gig as her first post-college job in the Big Apple out of sheer indifference. Hired to live in the Upper East Side home of Mrs. X (or so she is dubbed by Annie, for anonymity purposes, in a persistent voiceover) -- a cold and distant trophy wife elegantly played by Laura Linney in The Truman Show mode -- Annie devotes her time to the well-being of the Stepford mother’s bratty tween son, Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art). In short order, she discovers that there are better ways to spend your time in New York than working the nanny beat.

In response to her innate capriciousness, Annie is bombarded with moralizing from every direction. Her college pal Lynette (Alicia Keys) rolls her eyes at Annie’s gullibility in getting sucked into the conflicts of the X household, which she absorbs as though reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Annie’s mother (Donna Murphy), a gentle soul with faith in her daughter’s alleged professional aspirations, remains in the dark about her passionless employment for most of the story; the suggestion there seems to be that what is keeping Annie from becoming motivated enough to do something productive is the possibility of entering the unsatisfying realm of parental approval.

As it happens, the only advice she takes into consideration sounds like all the other advice and comes from a resident of the X's building -- a genial young man (Chris Evans) dubbed, in that omnipresent narration, as “Harvard Hottie.” Condescending as it sounds, that pretty much sums up the depth of his character.

In Prada, Anne Hathaway’s suffering editorial assistant has a regular gang of college friends, each swept up in the details of their own professional endeavors. It’s her awareness of their comparative satisfaction that drives the character to recognize her greater life goals. But the supporting cast in Diaries spend every scene condescending to poor Annie, rendering their own individualism moot. They’re symbols -- just like the hyperbolic pseudonyms -- of the pragmatism that Annie continually rejects. Perhaps inadvertently, Diaries becomes an exposé not only of the people who hire nannies, but the people who choose to become them.

This is a strangely tame project to come from directing duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, whose last collaboration, the wonderful American Splendor, broadened interest in the genius of comic scribe Harvey Pekar -- and the range of Paul Giamatti (who plays a minor, somewhat delectable role in Diaries as the loathsome Mr. X). Splendor combined documentary traditions with tightly scripted storytelling, creating an unlikely equation for emotional intensity, and it worked beautifully. A few gimmicks in Diaries break convention in a similar fashion, but they play out as needless tangents.

Whereas Pekar’s narration in Splendor mimicked the storytelling devices of his comics, Annie’s voiceover is a distraction. The movie’s active plan of attack is anthropology, as Annie imagines the various personality types she encounters as caged portraits in a museum exhibit. But the reductive technique is devoid of humor or cynicism, so it’s hard to discern the point. A blatantly parodic moment finds Mr. X’s mother on the beach reading the Diaries novel, practically suggesting that the filmmakers, devoid of new ideas, are desperately trying to tap a well that was dry in the first place.

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