Taking a satirical bite out of a tightly swaddled subculture, “The Nanny Diaries” is to high-class childcare what “The Devil Wears Prada” was to high fashion. Absent Meryl Streep’s indelible villainess, however, this new comedy rarely rises above standard sitcom fare, a bitter and ironic disappointment given the involvement of “American Splendor” writer-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. Built-in femme fan base indicates good opening weekend potential, but downbeat word of mouth will cause ‘Diaries’ to fade from view. DVD future looks brighter.
A roman a clef penned by former nannies Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the thunderously successful and laceratingly funny 2002 expose of spoiled Manhattan mommies helped usher in a new wave of chick lit (“Devil” provided the next big splash). Tale of an NYU child development major (dubbed simply “Nanny”) and experienced babysitter caring for the son of an Upper East Side socialite (“Mrs. X”) and her cheating husband (“Mr. X”) is afforded a generally faithful adaptation. But given Pulcini and Berman’s pedigree with the inventive, precedent-shattering “American Splendor,” the movie’s unexceptional nature has the net effect of an eagerly anticipated playdate torpedoed by an unruly toddler.
The bratty preschooler here is Grayer X (Nicholas Reese Art), handed off like a baton in a relay of short-lived nannies. Grayer’s chance encounter with Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) in Central Park prompts his mother (Laura Linney), mistaking “Annie” for “Nanny,” to offer the young woman a job interview. Improbably, so does every other Chanel-clad, Bugaboo-steering mother in the vicinity. Cue the ditsy prospective employer montage.
Pulcini and Berman have implemented a few key changes: They render their protagonist a recent college grad who’s headed for a future in finance until, on a whim, she decides to take the summer live-in nanny gig, a fact she keeps secret from her career-minded mother (Donna Murphy). As such, they’ve turned the pic into the story of a 21-year-old woman in search of herself, a move that softens its sardonic edge. Only Annie’s best friend, Lynette (songstress Alicia Keys, good but underused), and Lynette’s gay roommate Calvin (“Studio 60″‘s Nathan Corddry, ditto) know what Annie does for a living. One element the filmmakers retain is Mr. and Mrs. X’s anonymity, a choice that’s initially distracting but later provides a few good laughs.
The fact that Annie, in this version, has zero nannying experience is hugely implausible, and reps a squandered comic opportunity. (In real life, upper-class moms demand sterling references, in some cases retaining private investigators to run criminal background checks on prospective employees.) But never mind: Annie takes the job with the seemingly good-hearted Mrs. X, only to discover her new boss is a control freak with little time for hands-on parental interaction but plenty of time for Madison Avenue boutiques.
Annie moves into her employers’ sprawling apartment, designed to opulent perfection by Mark Ricker and his team, and shot with gleaming precision by Terry Stacey. She has fleeting encounters with Mr. X (a convincing Paul Giamatti), Grayer’s work-obsessed father, who brushes off his son’s embrace like lint on a suit. The fact that he’s got a mistress isn’t lost on Annie (nor, probably, on Mrs. X, nonetheless resolute in her displays of denial). More promising are Annie’s flirtatious foyer meetings with a handsome guy she calls Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans).
Despite their rocky start, Grayer and Annie come to share a close bond. Much time is devoted to the little boy’s absurdly overmanaged life, from his pre-programmed play sessions to his mother’s disdain for dairy and fear of mass transit, not to mention the entire West Side. Much of this material is quite funny, but the hyperbole plays better on the page. Linney, an actress of exceptional range, has little choice but to play up the character’s most obnoxious aspects, undermining the compassionate ambivalence Annie is supposed to feel for her.
Johansson, for her part, essays an engaging heroine, though even with mousy brown hair and Casual Corner wardrobe, she’s far too voluptuously beautiful for the job, like a Tiffany necklace in a brown paper bag. The perfect actress for this part, alas, has aged long past it. Fifteen years ago, Julia Roberts, with her blend of sass and sympathy, would have aced the role. Though that screen incarnation remains mere fantasy, Roberts gives a pitch-perfect performance on the audiobook, which prospective audiences would be wise check out in lieu of the movie.