Perhaps it had some verve on the printed page, but on the screen Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s adaptation of “The Nanny Diaries” arrives stillborn, a sour, stilted, graceless misfire that can’t make up its mind whether to be an edgy satire of class division or a feel-good feature-length sitcom. Comparisons are inevitable to “The Devil Wears Prada,” another tale of a naïve girl and a preternaturally demanding female boss, but this time the writing-directing team that brought a deadpan spark to “American Splendor” has instead produced a damp squib of a comedy that obstinately fails to ignite.
Scarlett Johansson, proving once more that even the mildest acting demands are beyond her capabilities, stars as Annie Braddock, a recent middle-class college graduate pressured by her practically-minded single mom Judy (Donna Murphy, wasted), a hardworking nurse, to secure a position on Wall Street though she’s more interested in anthropology. A chance meeting in Central Park with a Manhattan socialite (Laura Linney) and her cute son Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art) leads to an offer of a nanny’s position, which Annie decides to accept while telling Judy she’s gone into banking.
But the job soon turns into hell. Not only is her room a pathetic cubby hole and Grayer a troubled brat, but his mother proves a ridiculously demanding control freak. It’s not entirely her fault, though. She might fob off her son on a succession of nannies, whom she treats with nonchalant contempt, and be entirely self-absorbed, but that’s because her husband (Paul Giamatti), a business shark of some sort, is a complete cad, ignoring family for work and two-timing her with a woman in his office to boot. The trappings of wealth in their tony apartment are little comfort in such a loveless atmosphere.
It doesn’t take long for Annie to learn to despise her job, but one thing keeps her from quitting: she bonds with little Grayer, making up for his parents’ lack of attention with her own. She also connects with a handsome guy who lives upstairs (Chris Evans, type-cast as a bland cipher), whom she initially dismisses as a privileged jerk but soon learns is a really nice fellow who for some reason is quickly infatuated with her, despite the fact that she’s mostly a drag.
It’s the conceit of “The Nanny Diaries” that our put-upon young heroine presents her story to us in the form of an anthropological disquisition on the tribe of the New York ultra-rich, with the result that Johansson narrates the plot for us, calling her employers Mr. and Mrs. X, case-study specimens, and presenting them as characteristic of their kind. It must be said that the actress’ delivery of her voiceover is as flat as her overall performance elsewhere in the movie.
But the real problem with this device is that it invites the worst sort of dramatic reductionism, which the filmmakers embrace without any apparent regret. The person who comes off worst in this is Mr. X, whom even an actor as engaging as Giamatti can’t make anything more than a walking cliché. (A Snidely Whiplash moustache to twirl is all he’s lacking.) Linney comes off a little better, but she doesn’t come close to Meryl Streep’s “Prada” persona, not just because her domain is so small but because from the very beginning we can tell that she’s really suffering inside, so she’s instantly pathetic rather than comically threatening. And, of course, the story ends with a predictable turn to sentimentality, brought about by one of those phony emotional crises beloved of bad writers, that in its mushiness is as cringe-inducing as the drab nastiness preceding it—especially since it’s weighed down by Johansson’s dour presence.
“The Nanny Diaries” isn’t helped by its physical production. The interiors fashioned by production designer Mark Ricker, art director Ben Berraud and set decorator Andrew Baseman are good enough, and costume designer Michael Wilkinson’s work is good—especially in terms of Linney’s wardrobe—but Terry Stacey’s flat cinematography doesn’t do them any special favors, and the exterior work is uninteresting, taking little advantage of the NYC locations. Worse, some “Mary Poppins” effects sequences involving a flying umbrella are not merely precious but badly executed.
It’s not entirely clear what Berman and Pulcini were aiming at here. On the one hand, they seem to want to offer some biting observations on high society’s family values—or, more properly, lack thereof. On the other, they want to create a feel-good fable of a young woman finding herself and a misguided wife and mother learning what’s really important in life. Unfortunately, neither side of the equation is handled particularly well, and the mixture never gels anyway. So instead of a domestic variant of “Prada,” what “The Nanny Diaries” gives us is just a brusquer version of “Uptown Girls,” and most viewers—even the females at whom it’s obviously directed—are likely to find it more depressing than exhilarating.