Nanny Diaries, The

The gifted writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who created the original and edgy indie “American Splendor,” a highlight of the 2003 season, make a rough, not entirely successful transition to the big-budget, star-driven movie world with their follow-up “The Nanny Diaries.”

Likely to divide film critics, this quintessentially New York serio-comedy is a compromised rendition of the 2002 satirical novel of the same title, published to critical acclaim, blockbuster sales, and even notoriety. For commercial reasons, Springer Berman and Pulcini might have been subjected to pressures to soften the book's more offbeat and darker notes. End result is a sharply uneven work that never quite finds the right tone to depict its distinctive Park Avenue milieu, which in the book is treated as an exotic and esoteric site for anthropological fieldwork.

Originally scheduled by the Weinstein Company for spring release, “Nanny Diaries” was then pushed back to early fall (September 7), but then moved back to August 24, presumably due to potential competition from the Russell Crowe-Christian Bale Western vehicle, the remake “3:10 to Yuma,” New Line's ultra-violent and pleasurably campy Clive Owen starrer, “Shoot 'Em Up,” and other films. Just days after U.S. premiere, the film will be shown at the Venice Film Festival, out of competition.

As a book, “Nanny Diaries” caused controversy due to the fact that its authors, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, had spent a combined eight years working as babysitters in Manhattan, for over thirty families. As their novel presented a scathing and hilarious portrayal of one typically affluent Park Avenue family, the media began a guessing game, “who's-the-book-really-about” While the authors insisted their book was purely fictional, it was written in such a knowing style and from the inside that it practically begged for this kind of speculation.

As a movie, “Nanny Diaries” suffers from heavy reliance on first person voice-over narration (which, admittedly, is faithful to the source material), but it lacks the book's edgier, more critical tone, resulting in a fable, or fairy tale al la Mike Nichols' 1988 “Working Girl,” about a bright New Jersey working class girl who needs to find herself.

The other film that “Nanny Diaries” brings to mind is the far superior and more stylish “The Devil Wears Prada,” also a chick flick set in upscale Manhattan and centering on a peculiar work environment. Had she been younger by a decade, Meryl Streep, who gave a stupendous performance as the shrill (Anna Wintour-like) magazine editor in that picture, was born to play the upscale matron-suffering wife in the new film, though Laura Linney does a good job, too.

“Nanny Diaries” tells the story of the emotional and humorous journey of Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson in brown hair, looking downtrodden, for a change), a young woman from a working-class neighborhood in New Jersey, struggling to understand her place in the world. A college grad, Annie goes through an early identity crisis, asking herself Who Am I What Am I Supposed to Do Incidentally, in the book, the character's name is Nanny, and that's the way she is addressed in the movie by her spoiled and ruthless employers.

Fresh out of Columbia University, she gets tremendous pressure from her decent, hard-working, future-oriented single mother, Judy (Broadway's Donna Murphy) to find a respectable position in the business world, although Annie would prefer to trade in her blackberry for an anthropologist's field diary. The movie unfolds as a personal journal, with daily entries.

Through a serendipitous meeting in Central Park, Annie ends up in the elite and ritualistic culture of Manhattan's Upper East Side as remote as one can imagine from her suburban New Jersey upbringing. Choosing to duck out of real life, Annie accepts the position as a nanny for a wealthy family, referred to as simply “the X's.”

Annie quickly learns that life is not very rosy or happy on the other side of the fence, or rather tax bracket. As nanny, she must cater to the every whim of Mrs. X (Laura Linney) and her precocious son Grayer, while attempting to avoid the formidable Mr. X (Paul Giamatti, overacting and basically miscast), an adulterous businessman, who in his first scene is heard but not seen. He's faceless, self-absorbed man.

Life becomes even more complicated when Annie falls for a gorgeous Park Avenue Hottie (Chris Evans, at his most handsome but bland), who lives in her building, and through interaction with him, is forced to re-examine her life and the direction in which it is headed.

The saga begins well with rather sharp observation of the nanny's unique milieu, a truly tribal African village, including details about the demographics of the femmes employed in such line of work, all women of color, of course. The scene where a dozen nannies, each from a different country and thus speaking English in a heavy accent, wait from the brats of Upper Eastside Manhattan to get out of school and take them home, is terrific and holds a lot of promise, which, alas, is not fulfilled in the film's ensuing acts.

Feature's first hour is rather enjoyable, recording how Annie learns the ropes of her demanding job, which leaves her no free time or any privacy, not even in her tiny room, which is adjacent to the laundry room. We observe how, despite her better self and professional advise, Annie gets emotionally too close to Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art), to the point where the initially obnoxious kid comes to favor her company over that of his mom's.

Narrative problems begin after the first reels, when Annie's mother finds out about her daughter's fabricated existence and double life, leading to a series of verbose and obvious confrontations. As writers and directors, Springer Berman and Pulcini don't stick to Annie's singular milieu, and increasingly we get more and more scenes detailing the marital problems of the X's, like Mr. X caught in compromising position with his secretary, or marital fights in front of Annie and the boy.

There's another problem. Springer Berman and Pulcini are visionary directors who like to mix styles, as the insertion of the animation sequences in “American Splendor.” In “Nanny Diaries,” the blend of style does not work, further magnifying the film's inconsistencies of tone.

One of the picture's recurrent devices is the iconic image of Julie Andrews out of Disney's fantasy “Mary Poppins,” flying way up in the air with her magical umbrella. Andrews is, of course, the most famous nanny in Hollywood history, but use of her image is just a diversion, a distraction here, even if the directors meant it as a point of contrast to the routine chores of Annie the nanny, which are anything but magical or fantastical.

Picture's last reel, in which Annie finally decides to “fight back,” and firmly reassert her identity as an individual, is rather weak. And the movie makes a mistake by turning preachy and message-driven (which the book was not). Unfortunately, in the end, all the characters prove to be better, kinder, and gentler human beings that they initially were.

Hence, we get too many remorseful scenes with Mrs. X, learning the hard way the values of being a better mother, and one too many formulaic romantic scenes with the Harvard Hottie, who comes to Annie's rescue, assuming in the process the role of “Prince Charming to his Fair Princess Locked in the Castle Called Park Avenue.”

In these and other respects, “Nanny Diaries” increasingly gets closer in tone to such New York romantic but utterly non-realistic fables as “Working Girl,” with Melanie Griffith kicking out the shrill career woman Sigourney Weaver, while gaining the love and respect of prince charming Harrison Ford, and even “Pretty Woman,” which, though set in L.A., was also about the romantic journey of a working girl (Julia Roberts as hooker) with businessman Richard Gere.

Ultimately, Springer Berman and Pulcini may not be ready (yet), and possibly lacking the technical savvy and expertise, to make a visually stylish and sophisticated satire that a book like “Nanny Diaries” calls for. As it is, their movie is neither satisfying as an indie nor as a studio vehicle, and my fear is that it might be a tweener, falling in between the tracks and failing to attract either audience.

Too bad, because Springer Berman and Pulcini (who are husband-and-wife) are gifted as writers and directors, judging by their earlier documentaries and features.

Cast

Annie Braddock – Scarlett Johansson
Mrs. X – Laura Linney
Lynette – Alicia Keys
Harvard Hottie – Chris Evans
Judy Braddock – Donna Murphy
Grayer – Nicholas Reese Art
Milicent – Judith Roberts
Mr. X – Paul Giamatti
Calvin – Nathan Corddry

Credits

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 105 Minutes.

A Weinstein Co. release of an MGM/Weinstein Co. presentation of a Film Colony production. Produced by Richard N. Gladstein, Dany Wolf. Executive producers, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Kelly Carmichael.
Co-producer, Gary Binkow.
Co-directed, co-written by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, based on the novel by Emma McLaughlin, Nicola Kraus.
Camera: Terry Stacey.
Editor: Pulcini.
Music: Mark Suozzo
Production designer: Mark Ricker.
Art director: Ben Barraud.
Se decorator: Andrew Baseman.
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson.
Sound: Allan Byer.