August 22-28, 2007

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'The Nanny Diaries'

K.C. Bailey/©TWC 2007
The lady in red: No, not Scarlett Johansson—that would be too obvious. It's Laura Linney as the monster mom.

Madame X

Although 'The Nanny Diaries' is presweetened, it still delivers some child-care wrath

By Richard von Busack

CANDIED UP and overproduced, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Bergman's adaptation of The Nanny Diaries includes some airy fantasy sequences. Scarlett Johansson's Annie Braddock floats over Manhattan, hanging from an umbrella, like Mary Poppins herself. Earlier, she tours a wax museum of different social types. There, our heroine, a just-out-of–Montclair State College graduate, tries to find herself. In Central Park, Annie encounters Laura Linney as "Mrs. X," who scoops up Annie after mishearing her name as "Nanny"—an acceptable screwball comedy joke. Mrs. X is the lacquered wife of a philandering, absentee tycoon of a husband. (When the husband, Mr. X, finally lowers his copy of the Wall Street Journal, it turns out to be Paul Giamatti, wearing a close-shaven Prussian officer haircut, dyed orangutan orange.)

It'll be no news that Linney has the ammo for the part of the nightmarish mother who micromanages her child's cultural life and subjects him to her idea of haute French culture. (Again with the French-baiting, just like Rush Hour 3). Linney is fearfully mean and proud, and she doesn't leave a boundary uncrossed as she harries the poor servant. Annie's only perquisite is sharing an elevator with a boy she calls "Harvard Hottie" (Chris Evans). And she bonds with the X family's poor, bullied and ignored son, Grayer (Nicholas Art); the film has to explain that Annie puts up with overwork and insult for the sake of the child. The Nanny Diaries keeps groping for an explanation of why Annie can't quit—why not poverty? Why not student loans?

If you want someone Jersey and working-class, don't hire Johansson. She's at her best as a person on a pink cloud (and that isn't a put-down; many films require just that type of woman—Lost in Translation for instance). The casting is even more implausible after we meet Annie's mother. Donna Murphy, an intense and no-nonsense representative of the real Jersey, plays Judy. Murphy was the doomed wife of Dr. Octavius in Spider-Man 2. She was so good in this tiny part that she made that comic-book trope plausible: The idea that there is such a thing as a personal loss so devastating that it transforms you into a monster. While some apples fall far from some trees, you can't even imagine a parallel universe in which Johansson's Annie would be this woman's daughter.

All this movie has is the genuine, simmering anger in the subject. If you've had friends who did child care, likely you've heard similar stories of thoughtless snideness and patronization. It's rare to see these stresses and insults presented in a movie as something that wound, and that gives this failure some small measure of success. There is, I'd argue, a documentary streak left in this honeyed adaptation of Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus' novel. It isn't all about the cute foibles; in moments, it makes The Devil Wears Prada look like Cathy in the newspapers.

Movie Times The Nanny Diaries (PG-13), directed and written by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, based on the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, photographed by Terry Stacey and starring Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney, opens Aug. 24 valleywide.

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