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The Nanny Diaries

As one would expect,

The Nanny Diaries

goes through some changes in the transition from page to screen. Most notably is the fact that the film's nanny accidentally falls into her job rather than actually pursuing the job as she does in the book. Maybe the filmmakers, like the Manhattan moms who hire the nannies, somehow feel that being a nanny is not quite a respectable or worthwhile profession, and therefore they don't want to present Scarlett Johansson's character as someone actively seeking work as a nanny. So the film opens with Johansson's Annie Braddock literally running into her future young charge at the park and being hounded by eager moms who can't imagine their good fortune at finding a white woman to care for their child.

Scarlett Johansson and Nicholas Reese Art in The Nanny Diaries (TWC/MGM)

Once Annie falls into her job she discovers the horrors of life at the top. her employer, referred to as Mrs. X (Laura Linney), has almost every moment of her son's life scheduled with play dates, enrichment activities and school. God forbid the child has a free moment to be a kid. Annie has to learn all the rules regarding what little Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art) can and can't eat, where he's allowed to go, what books he can read, and what fragments of time he can actually spend with his biological parents. Annie also has to get accustomed to the fact that she's actually been hired to be a caregiver/servant to the mother as well, and must be at her beck and call to pick up dry cleaning, cook, or help with dinner parties. Annie's unique view into this privileged class allows her to provide viewers with something of an ethnographic study about the habits, customs and behavior of this particular breed of Manhattanites. And while she finds little affection for the adults, Annie develops a genuine concern for her ward who can't really be blamed for having such horrible parents.

Sneaking a date in The Nanny Diaries (TWC/MGM)

The Nanny Diaries has been brought to the screen by the talented writing and directing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They made the brilliant biopic of graphic novelist Harvey Pekar, American Splendor. With The Nanny Diaries , they have moments of inspiration but can't maintain the sustained innovation and cleverness of American Splendor. They come up with a fun visual device of freezing the different walks--from fashionistas to Fifthe Avenue moms--of Manhattan into what looks like dioramas in the New York Natural History Museum. Berman and Pulcini are more adept at the film's satire than at capturing the real emotions. Part of the problem is tone, or rather their inability to successfully shift tone. Mrs. X is too much of a comic caricature at the beginning for the filmmakers to get us to care for her at the end. And it's also hard to forgive her for the truly cruel way she treats Annie. Yet the whole film goes soft at the end as it tries to reconcile some of the characters and leave us with a "happy ending." It also ends by serving up a lecture on childcare and parenting, and trying to dull all the criticism that Annie has been doling out for an hour and a half. The film ends up taking a kind of TV sitcom tone that wants to wrap everything up in a warm and fuzzy package at the end. But imagine if someone like Neil LaBute ( In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors ) had tackled this material, then you would have had a savage satire that would have never gone soft at the core.

Now although I would have loved to see LaBute's version of The Nanny Diaries, I don't think the original authors McLaughlin and Kraus intended their biting study of New York's rich moms to be all ruthless condemnation. I think their book did have a heart but the mix of wicked humor and genuine emotion hasn't been accurately translated to the screen.

The Nanny Diaries (rated PG-13 for language) serves up a delightfully put-upon performance by the charming Scarlett Johansson and a slyly self-centered one by Laura Linney. The Nanny Diaries delivers some highly entertaining moments but I expected so much more from Berman and Pulcini at the helm of this adaptation.

Companion viewing: Mary Poppins, The Devil Wears Prada, American Splendor

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