I read The Nanny Diaries a few years ago. To most people, I'm sure it was a piece of happy chick-lit fluff. Summer beach reading for Generation X. And it was. But to those who have ever worked for a truly evil boss--as I was doing at the time I read it--it offered something more.
Unfortunately--at least for the film adaptation that comes out this weekend--it seems as though screenwriting/directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor) may never have had such a challenging experience themselves.
In brief, The Nanny Diaries is the story of Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman who becomes a nanny to a wealthy Upper East Side family and soon finds herself torn between her growing love for her little charge, Grayer (Nicholas Art) and the increasingly impossible-to-meet demands of his bitchy, self-absorbed mother, Mrs. X (Laura Linney).
For obvious reasons, The Nanny Diaries bears comparison to The Devil Wears Prada--roman à clef, boss from Hell, Manhattan setting, female protagonist, etc. etc. etc. But while Andie Sachs (the main character in Devil) has the job every girl would die for, Annie Braddock has a job that is, in some ways, looked down upon. Since the whole story centers on Annie's dilemma of how to keep her job with such an impossible boss, it is essential the stakes are raised another way--otherwise we don’t know why it's so important to keep a crappy job, let alone care if she doesn't.
The solution in the book is simple: Annie might not love the job, but she loves little Grayer. And in addition to the general objective terror most of us feel over being fired at all (no matter how bad the job) and the self-righteousness we feel when placed in such an unjust situation, the real issue is that she doesn’t want to break this poor little kid's heart just because his mom is a wench.
This issue is precisely where Springer Berman and Pulcini fall down. They cast a cute, likeable little kid as Grayer, a popular lead in Johansson (Lost in Translation, Match Point) and a talented opponent in Linney (Breach, Kinsey), but they can't quite go the distance. The obligatory scenes are there, Annie tells Grayer she loves him and looks frustrated with Mrs. X, but generally there's a lot more telling than showing and the point just never makes it across.
Not to mention the fact that Mrs. X is much more sympathetic in this script than she should be. Her character is not really meant to be a multidimensional one. You don't need to know or care why she is unreasonable; she is just supposed to be a ridiculously demanding pain in the ass. But instead Springer Berman and Pulcini get totally wrapped up in their various B plots--including the relationship problems between the Xes--that ultimately weaken her role as adversary.
And it's not for lack of Linney's trying. Everyone always says what a good actress she is, but it actually becomes clearer in this movie. She had to work hard to make Mrs. X work, and as a result Linney steals the show. Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) on the other hand, is a totally one-sided character, as he should be. Unfortunately we see way too much of him, too--unnecessary, no matter how good Giamatti is.
The Nanny Diaries has its good points. For example, I liked the imaginary urban woman Museum of Natural History exhibits. But for the most part, the movie stalled out in mediocre-land, and choices like the narration, the overbearingly cutesy art direction and costume design, and even preserving the convention of calling them Mr. and Mrs. X pulled you out of the story and dragged it down. Unless you're a fan of the book, I'd say it's a rental.