Reel Opinions

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Nanny Diaries

Watching The Nanny Diaries, I couldn't help but think the movie should come with a little label that reads "Sanitized for your protection". This is a movie that constantly flirts with being biting, sarcastic, and intelligent. And yet, it can't help but throw in some moments of misunderstanding for no reason at all other than the script requires the characters to misunderstand each other. Despite its constant flirtings with the Idiot Plot, The Nanny Diaries is not a terrible waste of time. The end result is just something far less than what it should have been.

Recent college graduate, Annie Braddock (Scarlet Johansson), is at a crossroads in her life. She's trying to pursue the career she's told herself she's always wanted, only to discover at a job interview that she can't even answer a simple question of who she is. While walking through Central Park, pondering herself and her future, she has a run-in encounter with an Upper East Side New York mother, and her precocious young son. The mother (Laura Linney), whose name is never identified and is simply referred to as Mrs. X in Annie's narration, has just had her son's previous nanny leave her. When Annie introduces herself, Mrs. X mishears her name as "nanny", and almost hires her right there on the spot in a moment of complete implausibility that I don't think anyone in the audience will be able to buy. Regardless, Annie figures that a job as a nanny would pay well until she figures out what to do with her life. She takes the job, and discovers that looking after the young child named Grayer (Nicholas Art) is a much harder job than she could have ever imagined. It doesn't help matters that Mrs. X is a woman who seems to care more about holding benefits and shopping than she does for her own child, and the seldom-seen husband, Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) is an unfaithful and charmless lout who's always being called away to Chicago on "business trips". Annie quickly discovers that the lives of the New York upper class are not as picture perfect as it would seem, and were it not for the eventual bond she builds with young Grayer and the cute guy who lives in the same apartment building, whom Annie dubs "Harvard Hottie" (Chris Evans), Annie would probably not even survive this strange new world she finds herself trapped in.

The Nanny Diaries is based on a book unread by me that supposedly told many shocking true stories and encounters that the authors experienced while working as nannies for different upper class families. The book won a lot of praise for its honest and unflinching look at its subject. Something tells me the movie won't win quite the same amount of praise. While I wouldn't exactly pass it off as being a failure, the movie is often too tame and sometimes even resembles a TV sitcom rather than an eye-opening expose on the world of the upper class. It never digs its own claws deep enough into the characters, and instead gives us the same aloof, stuck up cliches that we have seen too many times. That's not to say that the movie does not have its moments of honesty. Despite being marketed as a fairly lighthearted and breezy comedy, there are many moments where the actors take the material seriously, and start to resemble real people instead of sitcom caricatures. These moments are when the film is at its best. I also liked the film's clever use of narration. In the opening moments, we see Annie making her way through the Museum of Natural History. As she starts describing the different kind of people one can find in New York in her narration, she passes by museum-like exhibits of the people she's talking about, complete with lifelike wax figures. The first 10 minutes or so have a fun and almost whimsical tone, without being cheesy, that immediately grabs your attention. It's a shame that the film has to completely abandon this approach and never come back to it, except for a brief reference from time to time.

The writer-director team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (2003's wonderful indie film, American Splendor) show so much promise and creativity during the opening moments, that you have to wonder why they would just drop it and focus on a formulaic comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family? Was it studio pressure? Did they just not have enough faith in the material? I started out loving this movie, but my heart gradually sunk as it went along when I realized this movie had nothing else new to show or tell me. I never grew disinterested, but I just couldn't stop thinking about the movie it could have been had The Nanny Diaries not lost its nerve to be original. After the promising beginning, the movie falls into standard dilemmas where the parents are constantly fighting and ignoring the effect it has on those around them, the shy young woman can't admit her feelings to the cute guy whose obviously attracted to her, and the kid who acts like a monster, but he's not that bad really, he's just acting out because his parents pretend he doesn't exist. We also get some moments where the movie gets dangerously close to dipping into Idiot Plot territory. A key moment concerns Annie not wanting her mom to know she's taken a nanny job, since her mom thinks she went to New York in order to pursue a business career. So, when mom comes to visit, Annie most convince her best friend to let her borrow her apartment, and create an illusion life to convince her mom of her lie. The scene sounds like something out of a bad sitcom, and it plays like one, too. It's artificial, it's completely ridiculous, and no one in their right mind would think of something like this, nor would anyone agree to help out with it if someone actually did have the idea.

There's a fine cast assembled here, and they're able to make the thing mostly work, even when things dip into the realm of the ludicrous. Scarlet Johansson continues to prove that she's one of the best young adult actresses working today, making Annie out to be an instantly likeable and mostly intelligent (except when the script forces her to act incredibly stupid) woman. Her key acting moment comes late in the film, when she leaves an alcohol-fueled video message for her employer. Some actresses could have easily gone over the top or played the anger and emotion too broad, but Johansson nails it, and it's one of the best scenes in the film. Although Johansson is required to pretty much carry the entire film, she has a strong supporting cast who do not go completely to waste. As her employers, both Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti bring the right tone to their respective roles. Linney's character is a woman who is so detached from reality, she feels she has to fake a pregnancy in order to get attention from her husband. She is someone who pretends to have it all, but really has nothing, and it clearly shows in the sadness in her face in many of her scenes. The movie often skims the surface of this potentially complex and interesting character, but Linney's performance at least gives the character the attention that the screenplay neglected. Giamatti has a more difficult role, since he's supposed to be hateful, cold and distant. The love that he shows for his family is an act, and his child is too young to recognize that there is nothing there. He wisely does not humanize his role, or try to make us understand him. He lives in a world outside of his family, and Giamatti brings a great cold atmosphere to his performance. Even young Nicholas Art comes across as a natural child talent, and gets to share a couple great scenes with Johansson, whom he spends much of his screen time with. He already has a good screen presence, and knows how to come across as a natural kid instead of an "actor" kid.
While watching The Nanny Diaries, I started to wonder if there was another version of this movie lying somewhere on the floor of the studio editing room. I imagine it to be a smarter, thoughtful, and more real telling of the story. We can see glimpses of this movie from time to time, which brings our hopes up. And although it doesn't hold these hopes up for very long, it never becomes unwatchable and it never goes so wrong that I gave up on it. I really wish this movie had carried through with the promise the first half shows. This could have been something great. As it is, The Nanny Diaries will just have to settle for being heavily flawed, yet passable.



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