Oh, we all love to feel superior to rich people, don’t we? It makes us feel so nice and smug. They may have the fancy apartments and couture, but we have a lock on authenticity and unpretentiousness, right? That’s what “The Nanny Diaries” wants to tell us, anyway. Its talented cast and some inspired visuals cannot enliven a superficial story.
Annie (Scarlett Johansson) has just graduated from college with a degree in business. Her mother, a nurse, wants her to get a job on Wall Street. But she bungles the interview. Later, in Central Park, a wealthy woman referred to only as Mrs. X (Laura Linney) from Manhattan’s tony East Side offers her a job as a nanny. No one on Wall Street may be interested in her, but she learns she is “the Chanel bag of nannies,” the ultimate accessory, because she is white, single, and has a college education.
She tells her mother she took the Wall Street job, but moves into the luxurious East Side apartment to take care of Grayer (Nicholas Art). It turns out that Mrs. X expects Annie the nanny to do everything from preparing French food for Grayer to help him with his study of the language to photocopying his recommendations for the fancy school he is applying to, come to a 4th of July party dressed as Betsy Ross, pick up the dry cleaning, and pretty much be on duty 24/7. Mrs. X organizes galas to raise money to help children and goes to elegant functions to discuss child development issues, but she never has time for Grayer. When Grayer runs ahead of her in the park, she says, “Forgive my feral child.” Her favorite accessories are shopping bags from luxury retailers filled with lots of new accessories. She wears headbands. She all but purrs about the luxuries she will rain down on Annie if she becomes their nanny, making it sound as though Annie will become part of the family. But then she is imperious, neglectful, and remote and hides a security camera in a teddy bear to spy on her.
And then there is Mr. X (Paul Giamatti), whose job in the movie is to be much too busy to spend time with Grayer or Mrs. X. His only concern about Grayer is that he get into the most prestigious school. He barks “I’m just trying to earn a living!” when anyone asks him to pay attention to his family, and, of course, he is having an affair with some financial ace from the office and trying to exercise droit de seigneur on the poor righteous nanny.
Director/screenwriters Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini of the brilliantly innovative American Splendor seem to believe that a studio movie has to play it safe and the result is predictable and dull. Though Linney portrays the desperation behind Mrs. X’s behavior, the Xes are stereotypes and caricatures, the plot developments are sitcom-ish, and despite her claims that she cannot leave because of her devotion to the child, there is no chemistry at all between Annie and Grayer. Chris Evans (“The Fantastic Four”) makes a good impression as the “Harvard Hottie” who lives downstairs, and singer Alicia Keys has a lovely, natural quality as the obligatory Best Friend (with the obligatory Gay Roommate). There are hints of worthwhile issues about race and class, the pressures of conformity, materialism, competitiveness, and snobbery, and conflicts between home and work. But all of that was far more deftly handled in one brief segment of Paris Je T’Aime than in all of this movie’s hang-wringing about the oppression of the working class by the Marie Anoinettes of the Upper East Side.
Parents should know that this movie deals with issues some audience members may find disturbing, including marital problems, adultery, and sexual harassment. Characters drink, smoke, and use some strong language. There are emotional confrontations and references to divorce and death of a parent.
Families who see this movie should talk about how different families and different cultures have different ideas about raising children. They may also want to talk about the pros and cons of the child care arrangements in their own families and the importance of treating everyone with kindness and respect.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Devil Wears Prada and nanny classics like Mary Poppins and Mrs. Doubtfire. The red umbrella logo has been re-obtained by its original company, Traveler’s Insurance, and will be appearing in their new ads.