Dir. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, US, 105 minutes, colour, 35 mm.
In The Nanny Diaries, adapted from the best-selling picaresque roman a clef about tending to the offspring of New York's elite, Scarlett Johansson plays a would-be anthropology student immersed in a foreign culture as a nanny to a Fifth Avenue family. Shifting between broad farce and tender romance, the comedy throws off some droll barbs on the emotional poverty of Manhattan's rich, but delivers few genuine laughs.
The film will build on the broad audience for the gossipy 2002 novel by ex-nannies Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (and on a booming US nanny-glut, fueled by Bush-Era tax cuts for the rich).
Johansson is sure to attract young female audiences in the US, and could be the movie's only drawing-card in foreign territories, although Asian fascination with American wealth could lure in the curious there. Alicia Keys in a supporting role could deliver another set of fans.
The Nanny Diaries is the fictional feature debut of directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who dissected an LA restaurant's culture in their debut documentary, Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's, and deftly blended documentary, animation, and live-action fiction in American Splendor, a portrait of the curmudgeonly writer Harvey Pekar.
The directors steal a page from American Splendor in their spoof on anthropology, opening with freeze-frame satirical museum dioramas for various sub-species of Manhattan women, and then shifting into live-action.
Their co-written script pares down the detailed novel and tones down its luscious vitriol.
The upstairs-downstairs face-off between Nanny and family - known only as 'X' - stands Manhattanites' scorn for 'bridge-and-tunnel' outsiders on its head, as the New Jerseyan Nanny imparts real-life insights on child-rearing and self-esteem to the rarefied gentry (and to upstairs Prince Charming 'Harvard Hottie,' played generically by Chris Evans).
Yet sentiment disappointingly eclipses satire, and the movie's promising edge surrenders to a happy ending as a nanny saves the world, one over-privileged family at a time.
Once again, the rich get their money's worth. It's Working Girl meets Mary Poppins with a Cinderella romance.
In hinting that the street-wise plain-spoken Nanny is today's Mary Poppins, the directors pile up the allusions, playing with umbrella symbols and lining up businessmen in one shot like chimney-sweeps.
Like much in The Nanny Diaries, it's a nice witty touch, but won't have you laughing from the gut.
As plain-spoken Annie Braddock, known only as 'Nanny' to her bosses, Johansson has more punch and spunk than we tend to see in her typecast somnolence, showing versatility that might get better use down the road.
As Mrs. X, Laura Linney has crafted the iconic fortyish blonde matron, in stiff denial about her husband's adultery, too busy with charity work to raise her uncontrollable son, Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art).
DP Terry Stacey skillfully counter-poses close-ups of Johansson's soft features (dark-haired here) with shots of her martinet boss with every muscle clenched. The Fifth Avenue snob 'habitat' created by production designer Mark Ricker is another exercise in control, a sequence of anglophile interiors right out of Bonfire Of The Vanities.
Mr. X, Paul Giamatti (Harvey Pekar in American Splendor) is a libidinous banker cad with just the right bald paunchy arrogance. He would have been the perfect villain to take this satire to another level, if there had been more of him on the screen.
Yet there's far too much of Alicia Keys as Nanny's street-talkin' school pal, Lynette, who offers wisdom in endless close-ups wearing more make-up than any of the Fifth Avenue women.
Springer Berman and Pulcini have made a smooth transition to feature-length fiction. Now they just have to make the transition to comedy.
The Weinstein Company
Metro Goldwyn Mayer
The Weinstein Company
Richard N. Gladstein
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Nicholas Reese Art