The Nanny Diaries: A Nice Surprise

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K.C. Bailey / The Weinstein Company / AP

Nicholas Art and Scarlett Johansson in The Nanny Diaires.

Annie (Scarlett Johansson) flunks out of the fast track in the business world (too tongue-tied) and she lacks the self-confidence to follow her heart's desire, which is to become an anthropologist. Upshot? She gets a job as a nanny, which consists mainly of civilizing Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art), the spoiled, emotionally retarded, but redeemable, offspring of a tensely striving Manhattan couple known only as Mr. and Mrs. X (Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti). In effect, her diary treats the Xs as if they were residents of a primitive island culture, with Annie the Nanny as their own personal Margaret Mead making notes on an exotic culture.

The result is a movie that is much better than a slick adaptation of a best-selling novel has any right to be. That's largely because The Nanny Diaries is written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the smart and cinematically alert couple who brought us American Splendor, that weird, affecting study of the strange life and hard times of Harvey Pekar, the underground comics virtuoso. Harvey (also played by Giamatti) inhabited the American sub-basement; the Xs live near the top of the American heap. But in their solipsism, their emotional cluelessness, their resistance to normal human intercourse, they are, in some sense, his evil soulmates. As for Annie, she has straggled up out of working class New Jersey, bright, pretty, common-sensical, but without the social skills or self-confidence to master a hostile environment .

In what spare time she has — very little — she likes to repair to the Museum of Natural History, there to commune with the dioramas that portray the simple family lives of primitive peoples. In what is the movie's masterstroke, she begins seeing the Xs and their friends as figures in various dioramas as well — frozen in their ritualized (and counterproductive) attempts to nurture their child. Her sessions at the museum bring a certain calm to Annie, and perhaps a certain perspective to the field notes she's keeping on the Xs behavior. On the other hand, nothing can quite prepare anyone for the "Nannycam," hidden in a teddy bear, with which they keep an eye on her activities. Or justify their insistence that feeding little Grayer French cuisine may improve his language skills and thus enhance their hopes that he will gain admission to the right school. Or enhance Annie's hopes of hooking up with the "Harvard hottie" (Chris Evans), who lives upstairs and keeps casting a loving, ironic eye on her.

The Nanny Diaries is something of an odd-duck movie. It is not a broad comedy or a wildly romantic one, either. Nor is it Edith Wharton lite. But it does partake of all those modes in intelligently observant ways. It is, as well, blessed by Johansson's appealing performance and by Linney's tense, taut one. The former may be an insecure innocent, but there is a determination of spirit about her that is, in the end, rather touching. She is somehow going to rescue her little charge from false values. She may be something of a klutz, but she by golly knows that little boys sometimes need to eat peanut butter straight from the jar no matter what his uptight mom thinks the long-term consequences of that act may be. Linney is appealing in a different way, as a woman subtly suggesting that she knows better than to act out of the social anxieties that oppress her, but having trouble fighting her way free of them.

In the end she does liberate herself. And in the end The Nanny Diaries is an entertaining study of how class warfare — honest working girl vs. the arrivistes — works out in a society that likes to pretend that such warfare is a thing of the past. It isn't, of course, and the movie is tender enough, tough enough and wise enough finally to broker a satisfying truce between the combatants.