Definitely Lost in Translation
The Nanny Diaries / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | August 24, 2007 | Comments ()
If chick lit is really just a deceptive form of storytelling — angsty white women with nice shoes and attractive boyfriends being offered up as a somehow universal and relatable motif — then the film version of that genre’s The Nanny Diaries is a success in how it manages to pretend to want one thing but actually crave another. Part of the blame has to be laid at the feet of its otherwise talented directors, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who’ve mainly helmed documentaries and the feature adaptation of American Splendor, a film so good and smart and moving it’s enough to genuinely suggest that Berman and Pulcini are permanently stuck in documentary mode, recording and presenting pre-existing stories with as little filtering as possible, meaning that a story from, say, Harvey Pekar is going to come across as bitter and nuanced but subtly hopeful, while their interpretation of The Nanny Diaries is necessarily going to be flighty and shallow, and lean more toward gossip than actual storytelling. Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin’s novel — even in its original form, the story’s so weak it took two people to tell it — is given pointless life on the big screen, and in the end it’s just as forgettable as the worst examples of any genre of storytelling, chick, dick, or otherwise. It’s a good thing most of the characters are given aliases or nicknames; they’re that much easier to shrug off when the credits roll.
Annie (Scarlett Johansson) graduates from NYU with a business degree but a minor in anthropology, a detail that’s quickly tucked in between her voice-over, in which she holds forth on the various mating rituals and family habitats of various cultures, finally landing on the affluent white members of the Upper East Side and their often minority nannies. (If you think the film will address the race issue, save your breath.) After tanking an interview with Goldman Sachs, Annie wanders Central Park and tries to figure out who she is and what she wants to do with her life. She saves a kid from a run-in with a jogger, and that little boy turns out to be Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art), the 5-year-old son of Mrs. X (Laura Linney), a neurotic socialite who married rich and neglects her kid. Annie doesn’t use Mrs. X’s real name as to preserve the identity of the subject of what’s morphing into a “field report” of Annie’s investigation into upper-crust society, since she’s just a blue-collar Jersey girl with a mom slaving away as a nurse to put her through college. (Again, if you think the film will address the class divide … come on, you know the answer.) Mrs. X is so taken with Annie that she hires her to be Grayer’s nanny, and Annie figures it’s as good a way as any to clear her head, get some perspective, and move to the city. So she accepts.
Grayer, however, turns out to be a handful, and the bulk of the film follows Annie as she struggles to tolerate and even befriend the boy while juggling her diminishing social life and her crush on the guy upstairs (Chris Evans), named only as Harvard Hottie, in a typically cutesy-but-not-really genre convention; would a movie from the guy’s perspective christen the girl Jenny McBigtits? Annie continues to narrate the story, providing it with its only personality but precious little logic; for instance, shortly after meeting Princeton Penis, Annie comments, “Suddenly, the world’s most notorious loner has two new men in her life.” Yet Berman and Pulcini’s script has done nothing so far to establish Annie’s independence or isolationism: No break-ups or declined dates, no lengthy talks about her lack of love, no DTRs with a guy so she can spend the summer “finding herself.” The movie isn’t even competent enough to nail the tired genre tropes it needs to keep itself propped up, and it’s indicative of the film’s larger problem: It wants to be about a young woman striking out on her own and redefining herself, but Annie is given almost no character development over the course of the story. She starts out nice, stays nice, and ends somehow even nicer. Once she bonds with Grayer, the rest of the narrative is simply a matter of waiting for her to gather the strength to quit a job she never enjoyed in the first place.
Johansson does the best she or anyone could with such a watered-down heroine, though it’s hard not to feel embarrassed for her when Annie and her best friend, Lynette (Alicia Keys), sing along with George Michael’s “Freedom” while cruising in their convertible after graduation, or when Annie and Grayer have a conversation that unironically rhymes the phrases “shake your booty” and “make a doody.” Evans is likable and completely bland in his role, the kind of virtuous caricature that makes its home in movies like this one. As usual, Linney is fantastic at what she does, and turns in a believable portrait of a sad, brittle woman that would be infinitely more watchable if she weren’t being forced to recite such hacky dialogue. There’s also the matter of the cloying Mary Poppins theme haphazardly woven throughout, as when Annie’s ringtone turns out to be some weird digitized version of “Chim-Chim-Cheree.” Yeesh.
The closest comparable film to The Nanny Diaries is The Devil Wears Prada, which also used real-life settings and stories as the backdrop for a slightly fictionalized tale. But The Nanny Diaries owes even more than that to the earlier film, including the story template of a pretty young girl with a rough job who will eventually quit, and who along the way hooks up with a hot guy, not to mention an anchoring role played by a respected actress. (In one terrifyingly meta moment, a character in The Nanny Diaries is seen reading The Devil Wears Prada on the Hamptons beach.) But without even a semblance of conflict or tension, The Nanny Diaries can’t muster even a fraction of Prada’s admittedly weak charms. The story makes a few head fakes at legitimate conflict or the virtues of struggle and experience, but by never having Annie risk heartbreak or true change, it winds up endorsing a sheltered — dare I say it, nannied — way of life.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.