Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti, Nicholas Art
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman
In "American Splendor," the first feature film from co-writers and directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis worked wonders with a wildly inventive script that beautifully captured the eccentricities and human quirks of cartoonist Harvey Pekar.
In their second collaborative effort, however, Pulcini and Springer Berman can't quite recapture the magic working off of the relatively fluffy chick-lit novel, "The Nanny Diaries," a based on real-life reporting from NYU grads Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin.
To be sure, Pulcini and Springer Berman utilize some of their same old tricks, most regrettably a Mary Poppins type sequence using the famed umbrella building in Tribeca and one of the most dreadful opening sequences I've ever witnessed as we are introduced to the entire sordid affair by a monotonous voiceover from Scarlett Johansson in which she recounts the experience as part of an anthropological entrance essay into graduate school.
In "The Nanny Diaries," working class Jersey girl Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) is fresh out of NYU when she unexpectedly freezes during her first job interview on the question "Who is Annie Braddock?"
Annie decides she'd best find out the answer to this question before going any further and, before she knows it, she literally falls into the job of becoming a nanny for young Grayer (Nicholas Art) and his Upper Eastside parents (Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti), known throughout the film simply as Mr. and Mrs. X.
Annie naively thinks she's "arrived" in New York City, only to find herself quickly living at the mercy of the everyday whims of the X's, especially those of Mrs. X, whose primary contribution to parenting was the birthing process itself. One gets the feeling that if she could have hired even that out, she'd have done so.
Annie is lying to her mother (Donna Murphy) and growing increasingly distant from her best friend (Alicia Keys), and sworn off relationships despite the attentions of a "Harvard Hottie"(Chris Evans) while all the time learning that the more she tries to be simply an observer of life the less she finds herself able to have one.
With "The Nanny Diaries," Pulcini and Springer Berman seen to be trying to blend together both an acerbic social commentary and a heartfelt family drama.
Unfortunately, neither approach really works.
Truth be told, I expected to enjoy "The Nanny Diaries" immensely. While I've never fancied myself a huge fan of Scarlett Johansson, she has an undeniable "girl next door" beauty about her and relaxed style that made the thought of her playing a nanny an attractive one.
Perhaps, finally, Johansson would set aside the "most beautiful woman" labels and intellectual film roles and just relax into a role.
The only problem is that Scarlett never relaxed. While it was a major plot point that Annie never intended to be a nanny forever, watching Johansson as a nanny was uncomfortable at best. While the script told us that Annie and young Grayer developed an close, loving bond what was witnessed on the screen felt uncomfortable and awkward.
Maybe Scarlett doesn't actually like kids? However, this is called acting and I never bought for a moment that she cared about this already vulnerable young child.
As the young child, however, Nicholas Art was utterly charming despite the rather contrived closing scene with Annie. Art, who has been seen both on the soap "Guiding Light" and in the recent "Syriana," is a young talent to watch.
The real tragedy of this film's utter mediocrity is that it masks a marvelous performance from Laura Linney, who fleshes out her one-dimensional character in much the same way that Meryl Streep brought hers to life in last year's "The Devil Wears Prada." Linney's "Mrs. X" is a woman whose smidgen of humanity left is enough to allow her to realize that the made-up world in which she is living is crumbling before her very eyes. Linney offers a disturbing blend of viciousness and humanity that makes her character's apparent disintegration all the more sad.
While Pulcini and Springer Berman brought back Giamatti from their successful first collaboration, they unfortunately gave him much less to do beyond the typical leering and sneering of an Upper Eastside New Yorker with more money than they know what to do with and nary an ounce of common decency. While Giamatti's more than competent in the role, it's difficult watching such a gifted actor with so little to do.
Largely on the strength of Linney's performance and the sympathetic portrayal offered by young Nicholas Art, "The Nanny Diaries" is a disappointing yet modestly watchable flick more appropriate to the home video setting than any need for the big screen. Fans of Johansson may enjoy seeing her in a different type of film role, even if she doesn't exactly pull it off with flying colors.
Now then, forgive me while I get back to watching "Adventures in Babysitting" again.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic