By Emily Condon
The Nanny Diaries
Dir. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
The second feature from creative team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, of American Splendor fame, The Nanny Diaries chronicles the trials and tribulations of Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson), an ordinary college graduate (She trips! She farts! She’s got brown hair!) who just can’t figure out who she really, you know, is. In her confusion, she agrees to nanny for Mr. and Mrs. X, a ridiculously unnamed Upper East Side couple who are unimaginably wealthy and—surprise—really big assholes. Except Mrs. X isn’t. Down deep. Kind of. Or, I mean, she is, until Annie the Nanny finds herself and in the process generates a somewhat less than Joycean epiphany in Mrs. X so liberating that she will now, on occasion, eat peanut butter and jelly. Right out of the jar no less.
American Splendor suffered from that plague of precocious dysfunction so common to contemporary American independents, but it exhibited, at the very least, competent filmmaking. By contrast, the carelessness and lack of craft that riddles The Nanny Diaries is at times astounding. First are the innumerable irksome queries—Annie’s liberation from the tofu-toting Mrs. X includes allowing her young charge, Grayer, to eat Smucker’s PB&J together-in-the-jar-at-last product (called Goober, for those tantalized by the concept) direct from the container. The Goober’s first appearance makes little sense—how did the product even end up in organic fanatic Mrs. X’s kitchen? But when the film’s dénouement comes to hinge entirely on Mrs. X’s acceptance of said Goober, one can’t help but wonder whether she would really have purchased another jar—of the same brand, no less—after starting life anew, even though the film repeatedly established that her and her son’s diets had been priorly limited almost exclusively to soy products. The train station introduction of Annie’s best friend, Lynette (Alicia Keys), is similarly flummoxing: the two women happen to bump into each other, not only choosing the same train car (one getting on, one off), but also leaving ample time for a chat (during morning rush hour, mind you) before the train leaves the station
The film boasts so many delinquent details and inconsistencies that each minor miscue takes on an epically banal significance within the film’s larger context. The result is that it becomes impossible to accept anything onscreen as reflecting any version of reality; furthermore, wondering about these conundrums becomes the most gripping part of the viewing experience. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine the aforementioned celebration of Smucker’s, for instance, or Annie’s frequent flights of fancy—during which she floats above Manhattan on a red umbrella that doubles as the Traveler’s Insurance corporate logo—appealing to anyone whose livelihood doesn’t rely on the continued popularity of peanut butter or the fear of a metaphorical rainy day.
But such quibbles are minor when considering the film’s more fatal flaws. Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti (Mrs. and Mr. X) have between them turned in dozens of compelling performances over the past several years, but their characters are so broadly written that they are held back from conveying anything beyond patent absurdity. More confounding even than the failings of the script, however, is the dead-weight direction. The awkwardness of Mr. X’s mechanics during a pass at Annie leads one to believe that the directors are standing mere feet from the actors, mouthing, “Put your hand on her hip! Look at those breasts, Mister X!” Similar stiffness affects numerous scenes—when Annie calls Lynette in a panic, the camera cuts to her and her unidentified date as he gazes at her with body language so unconvincing and clumsy that one imagines the directors tossing out motivations from offscreen like, “You’re hot! You’re black! You want to get your freak on!” Clunkiness plagues not only the film’s content but also its form—the Annie/Grayer getting-to-know-you montage is accompanied by War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”; the boldness of their trip to the forbidden West Side of Manhattan is evidenced by turning the camera upside down!
Poor acting and directing, of course, offer ample ground for complaint. Yet the greatest offenses of The Nanny Diaries arise not from its gross ineptitude, but in its underlying ethos. The film joins Attractive Girls With Unimportant Problems cohorts like Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Devil Wears Prada, and countless chic-lit novels in demanding not just for sympathy for its subject, but esteem. It’s difficult to recall the moment when unbridled self-absorption evolved from a psychological defect into a generational epidemic, but The Nanny Diaries offers further evidence that a fundamental shift has taken place. Sure, it contains a modicum of empathetic posturing—the camera pulls in tight as one African nanny briefly waxes poetic about the irony of raising miniature Upper East Siders while her own children suffer the indignity of life without a mother, and Nicholas Art, as Grayer, lobs enough crocodile tears to make our heartstrings momentarily waver. These token gestures, however, make the film’s position that we owe our inane protagonist support and regard all the more insulting. Despite the fact that nearly all of Annie’s problems are brought about by her own rampant incompetence and complete self-absorption, she’s not only forgiven her failings, she’s left basking in both self-love and the admiration of others (and enjoying rooftop access, to boot). Then again, she did accomplish a lot for the good folks at Smucker’s. Maybe she deserves a little love after all.