In "The Nanny Diaries," based on the bestselling roman à clef, Scarlett Johansson plays Annie Braddock, a recent college graduate who doesn't know what she wants from life. Her single mom (Donna Murphy) wants Annie to be a CFO in the world of corporate finance. Instead, a chance encounter in Central Park launches Annie into the rarified world of upscale live-in nannyhood.
There's a funny idea buried in this material, which has been skewed slightly from the novel where Annie was an NYU child development major and veteran babysitter. By making Annie an anthropology student, the husband and wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who wrote and directed the film, frame her experience as field work in the darkest precincts of the Upper East Side.
This conceit has its amusements until it becomes clear that the people on display – particularly the harridan socialite (Laura Linney) who hires Annie, and her philandering Mr.
Moneybags husband (Paul Giamatti) – are going to remain clichés throughout. This couple is identified for us, in one of Annie's periodic voice-overs, only as Mr. And Mrs. X. In the same way, the preppy hunk who lives in the same building is referred to as "Harvard Hottie" (Chris Evans).
What the filmmakers don't seem to comprehend is that Annie, for all her mooniness about searching for her own true self, is also a type. Her innocence is supposed to set her apart from the well-heeled fray, but she's actually a chick-lit stalwart: the ingenue whose eyes are opened, but not poisoned, by the big, bad world. It's "The Devil Wears Prada" all over again, minus the fashionistas.
Although the novel was praised for its dead-on accuracy in portraying this high-end world, far too much of the movie is fantastical. Annie, for example, is hired by Mrs. X purely on a hunch. Her background is never checked; her credentials are nonexistent. Anyone who knows anything about the real world of upper East Side nannies will tell you that before anybody is hired, the combined talents of Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes are usually enlisted.
It also is a bit much to imagine that Mrs. X, even though she is supposed to be blind to everyone's difficulties except her own, would expect Annie to be boyfriendless. I mean, this is Scarlett Johansson, folks. And yet, for a long stretch, Annie thinks of herself as "terminally single." When Harvard Hottie shows up on her doorstep, he seems to be the only guy in the city with a working pair of eyes.
And what of the little brat in Annie's charge? His name is Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art), and for a while he rivals the kid in "The Omen." Then Annie lets him eat peanut butter out of the jar – a real no-no – and thereafter all is hunky-dory.
The mushiness of this movie is doubly disappointing since Berman and Pulcini earlier made "American Splendor," the marvelously inventive movie that starred Giamatti as woebegone working-class comic book genius Harvey Pekar. Maybe the filmmakers' affinity for the downtrodden only extends to the lower echelons. There was a bracing clear-eyed quality to that film, whereas "The Nanny Diaries" is awash in spurious sentimentality and sniping.
Even Annie's yen for anthropology is used against her: In the movie's terms, her desire to observe life is preventing her from living one. This is a rather strange claim for filmmakers to be endorsing.
It's also hypocritical, since, in the end, Annie gets to have it all and still retain her virtue. Berman and Pulcini give her a fade-out that would make Cinderella green with envy. "The Nanny Diaries" is best viewed as a postfeminist fairy tale for chicklettes. Grade: C
• Rated PG-13 for language.