In "The Nanny Diaries," a prim young woman slaves for a seasoned Manhattan gorgon, and both ladies learn a thing or two. Here the devil wears Pucci, and she has a tony address and a 10-store-a-day shopping habit. But she's not much of a mother. Never fear, the movie happily humiliates some maternal instinct into her.
Adapted from the comic strip of a bestseller and directed by the married team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the movie upgrades the book to a live-action cartoon meant to blow the lid off all the neglectful mommying being done among the Upper East Side's gentry. As exposés go, this one is old news. Apparently, a lot of rich children are being raised by the help. And, shockingly enough, the rotten women who've done the hiring don't treat anybody better than they treat themselves. But the filmmakers think they've found a way to freshen up the material: anthropology.
That's what Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson), the movie's 21-year-old heroine, majored in. And in the first scenes, she walks through the Museum of Natural History looking at dioramas of mothers from other cultures. This sounds like a clever idea. Then it turns reductive. Annie deduces that a Manhattan woman can be explained as a type (fashionista, Central Park bag lady, etc.) and carries a "field guide" to record her encounters.
Annie, of course, is a type herself: the Scarlett Johansson drifter. Like Johansson's characters in "Lost in Translation" and "Match Point," Annie doesn't know what she wants. She even tells a potential employer she doesn't know who she is -- and that's when we know we're in for a slog. The movie treats its smart idea stupidly. We have to spend the entire movie waiting for Annie to realize she's as perceptive as we already know she is. This is the story of how she smartens up, and how the work she winds up doing is not just work, it's research -- presumably for the lucrative roman à clef she intends to write.
In the movie's last good scene (it comes about 20 minutes in), Annie has just finished rescuing a small child from an accident when the boy's mother (Laura Linney) gallops over to thank her -- not for saving the kid, per se, but for saving her from searching any further for child care. This is a funny, nicely done introduction that crisply, wittily mocks some rich mothers' narcissism. When the woman hears Annie's name, she assumes it's "Nanny," which is what she spends the rest of the movie calling Johansson's character. For her "case study," Annie calls her new employers Mr. and Mrs. X. (The kid, who's lovably played by Nicholas Reese Art, keeps his name: Grayer.) Linney brings a lot of her intelligence to bear on a part that doesn't need it. But she doesn't want us to like or respect this woman. She just needs us to find Mrs. X horrid enough to laugh at her. Sometimes we do.
But there are too many goofy, uninspired sitcom antics. Mrs. X makes outrageous demands, and Annie breaks her neck trying to meet them. Mrs. X needlessly installs a "Nanny Cam" to catch Annie -- in the act of what? A generically cute boy down the hall (Chris Evans, in yet another plain white T-shirt part) catches Annie in one compromising position after another. Mrs. X, meanwhile, spends her free time being frivolous and fretting over her philandering businessman spouse, whom Paul Giamatti plays as a cool caveman. His creepiness seems imported from a more serious movie-of-the-week.
Berman and Pulcini's previous movie was "American Splendor," a small independent comedy, with Giamatti as the grubby comic-book writer Harvey Pekar. This is their first Hollywood assignment, and they don't seem to think much of it. The whole thing teeters between sympathy and condescension. That anthropology device is a way to adapt the material without deigning to actually touch it. So the comedy is synthetic and the emotional truths insincere.
Occasionally, Annie will express a thought about the world ("One had to wonder what kind of culture would turn a father's business card into a security blanket"), as though she studied Carrie Bradshaw in college instead of reading Claude Levi-Strauss. One has to wonder what kind of movie about a nanny focuses entirely on a woman like Annie. The movie explains that as a young, single, white, American college graduate, she's extremely eligible. "The Chanel bag of nannies," Annie puts it. And Hispanic, Caribbean, Indian, and Irish women throw in their two cents, but the filmmakers seem uncomfortable with the surrounding racial, social, and class politics. Admittedly, the brief shot of a nanny and her charge at a costume party dressed as Condoleezza Rice and little George W. Bush is quite a statement. But the shaming boilerplate feminist prerogatives of Annie's single nurse mother (Donna Murphy) and her best friend (Alicia Keys) don't make a dent in the movie's consciousness.
Comparing "The Nanny Diaries" to "The Devil Wears Prada" is inviting. Both movies attempt to rethink their meager chick-lit sources. But "The Devil Wears Prada" used Hollywood glamour to make smart points about working women and their choices. "The Nanny Diaries" has its heroine floating over Manhattan like Mary Poppins (the red umbrella has been plucked off the Travelers Insurance building). None of the characters in "Prada" were fish in a barrel. You could make sushi with the women in "The Nanny Diaries," though. The movie's banal fantasies badly chafe any anthropological consideration of what a girl should do with her career. This isn't life. It's Lifetime.