THE NANNY DIARIES rises above its whiffenpoof premise of a middle-class anthropologist charting the strange and treacherous milieu of an unfamiliar culture and comes up with something that is almost but not quite substantial. The anthropologist in question is the eponymous nanny, and the culture is the Upper East Side New York society in which she accidentally finds herself. The culture clash, or rather class crash that ensues as middle and upper mix uncertainly is, despite the premise, far more insightful and, dare I say it, humane, that the usual take on such things.
The clash that ensues is, despite the premise, far more insightful and, dare I say it, humane, that the usual take on such things.
The nanny in question is Annie (Scarlett Johansson), whose name is the spark that sets everything else in motion. Fresh out of college, and even fresher from a disastrous job interview for a job that would have fast-tracked her into the stratosphere of high finance, she is perching on a Central Park bench, pondering her place in the world, specifically why the interview question “Who is Annie Braddock?” proved to be such a stumper. Diverted from her introspection by the sight of a 5-year-old in peril, her self-introduction to his high-society mother who is given the anonymous designation of Mrs. X (Laura Linney) is misheard by the lady in question as nanny rather than Annie. Before she can correct the mistake, she is being courted with extreme prejudice by every nanny-hungry mother in Mrs. X’s milieu. Having nothing else in the way of life plan, she joins Mrs. X’s household, telling her mother, the one who worked nights and weekends to put her through school, that she is actually moving from New Jersey to bright new life as a trainee for a prestigious financial firm.
Of course it will go badly. Linney, with a perfectly played bit of understated but distinct foreshadowing, creates the tiniest moue of overly cultured, condescending disapproval over Annie’s ordering of a hamburger during lunch at Bergdoff’s at their initial lunch/interview. That polite veneer is revealed as just that and less as soon as Annie moves in to the luxurious X apartment, is handed a list of rules that would make the most obsessive-compulsive shrink in horror, is informed by the maid that the last nanny was dismissed for having a date, and is then kicked roundly about the ankles by her charge, Grayer (Nicholas Art) when she goes to pick him up at school. That she is also being pursued by the cute guy upstairs, designated as the Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans) only adds to her stress. That would be, in addition to keeping up a charade with her mother, the long hours, impossible demands (when Grayer isn’t making enough progress with his French lessons, Annie is ordered to prepare Coquilles St. Jacques for him), and violating the cardinal rule of nanny-dom — becoming emotionally attached to her charge.
And, further of course, there is no denying that part of the pleasure to be found in this tale is dissecting the hollow existence of the moneyed class. The callous and casual dismissal of Grayer by both parents with the injunction to Annie to keep the kid quiet as they walk off and leave the kid as he is trying to get their attention. Significantly, Mr X’s face isn’t seen by Annie until one-third of the way through the film. A little heavy-handed, perhaps, but effective, and a counterpoint to the absurdity of the X’s hiring of a nanny consultant (James Urbaniak in an all-too brief cameo) when Grayer fails to gain admittance to the fashionable grade school du jour.
The arch narration of the anthropologists journal Annie is keeping dispassionately recounts the casual habits of infidelities of the part of husbands and the pampered self-indulgence on the part of their spouses who sleep until noon in order to gear up for a tough afternoon of choosing a caterer. With Linney’s exquisitely calibrated performance, Mrs. X, the nemesis and bane of Annie’s existence, becomes a fully realized human being, sinned against as well as sinning, the latter in knee-jerk reaction to the former. As her world unravels over her emotionally toxic husband (Paul Giamatti the perfect picture of insipid evil) and living up to her own impossible standards in pursuit of the right status trophies, Linney finds the heart within the clothes-horse and makes it one whose breaking is genuinely affecting. Johansson, too, brings enormous warmth to a part that is just a scooch underwritten. She overcomes the broad comedy of being dressed in silly costumes by Annie’s employers, and the mine-field of clichés. It is more than her arresting face on which the camera wisely focuses, it is the unguarded tenderness written there and in her voice and body language.
THE NANNY DIARIES follows the usual plot points for stories such as this, and yet has its own charms. It is, however, diverting and well-played. There is an occasional burst of blithe whimsy, the comeuppance of some, but not all, those who deserve it, and an oddly moving scene in which Scarlett Johansson yells with unabashed fury at a teddy bear (who actually deserves it).