After the critical success of their conversion of the comic book series ‘American Splendor’ for the big screen in 2003, one could be forgiven for expecting more from Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. The Nanny Diaries attempts to make satirical observations about a peculiar New York subculture interesting and fun, and although it may indeed be accurate, the film fails dismally.
Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) is a recent college graduate with honours in business and a minor in anthropology. Uncertain how to begin a career it seems her mother wants more than she does, Annie stumbles across the X family in Central Park, and decides to spend some time as a nanny while working out what she wants from life. Thrust into the world of Upper East Side wealth and decadence, she will be challenged by her distaste for the lives of her new family and the conflict that comes when she realises she is the only hope at all for her charge Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art). Complicating matters further is Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans) who shares the apartment building and, although obviously desirable, seemingly represents all that she despises of the X family and their world.
There is so much wrong with this film it is difficult to find something to praise. Laura Linney perhaps comes closest to deserving it, playing Mrs X with a ruthless and manipulative streak that is horrifying to an outsider. Mrs X is the ultimate exemplar of the script’s point of view, and required someone of Linney’s ability to make her work. Overwhelming Linney, however, is a cavalcade of disastrous miscasting and abysmal overacting. Johansson is horribly out of place as the hero Annie, and her early scenes – particularly those requiring physical comedy – are particularly awful. She is never at home as the shy and naive young Jersey girl, and doesn’t fit as the angry burnt-out nanny either. Giamatti and Evans suffer from inadequately fleshed out roles that give them little to work with, and Giamatti is especially weak in a turn so significantly underdone compared with the character roles that give him room to move, like Sideways.
Beyond the difficulties with casting, the pseudo-magic realism tone also fails, with the use of the umbrella motif particularly embarassing. The Natural History exhibits and the sidewalk Field Guide scenes add nothing of substance and sit uncomfortably with the remainder of the work. The narration, purporting to be text from the book describing the events occurring onscreen, is intrusive and oftentimes unnecessary.
That so popular a work of writing can be reduced to something so profoundly disappointing on film is the real measure of the failure of Springer Berman and Pulcini. The Nanny Diaries is far from successful, and is frequently barely watchable. Were it not for Linney it would be impossible to recommend, and as it stands should only be seen on DVD by those who are very, very bored.Rating: