As symbols of our anxieties about class, gender, motherhood, race and work, nannies are the latest middlebrow obsession, the single girls of the 21st century. Two recent books -- the Susan Davis/Gina Hyams anthology Searching for Mary Poppins, and Lucy Kaylin's The Perfect Stranger -- have given a whole new memoirish life to the great divide between mothers and nannies that the dishy 2002 best seller, The Nanny Diaries, played for chick-lit laughs.
As a result of all this au courant nanny hand-wringing, the film version of The Nanny Diaries, starring Scarlett Johansson as the put-upon and overeducated domestic, should feel well-timed.
Should. But in reality, The Nanny Diaries feels decidedly laggard, considering how much nanny politics has changed since 2002, its axis symbolically shifted from New York's East Side posh-moms to the West Side P.C. set. The prissy Park Avenue mothers whom authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus so rightfully skewered in their book have given way to an equally loathsome, newfangled mommy: Think fretting NPR-types, as angst-ridden about spending "quality" time with their children as they are about what the Filipino nanny will think about their white entitlement.
As any nanny-lit watchers worth their salt know, the new obnoxious nanny trend is not mistreating, ignoring and exploiting your nanny – it's trying to understand and feel your nanny's pain.
Like other permutations of nanny culture presently upon us, The Nanny Diaries is another assertion that the truly radical nanny diary will come from the vantage of a black, Hispanic or illegal immigrant nanny looking through the keyhole of white privilege. There are plenty of nannies of this sort in the film version by American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, but their contributions are limited to rare verbal swipes from the sidelines. Here the main vantage comes courtesy of the milky bland Annie (Johansson). She's the child of a Jersey-based single mother who has worked her fingers to the bone to put her Annie through college so that her daughter can retreat to the relative security of nannying while figuring out her life plan.
What should be an understandable case of Gen-Y jitters at leaving the bosom of college, however, is presented like most of this tepid satire, without any substance or heart. (Making matters worse, Johansson is clearly miscast, hiding her light under a brown rinse.)
The Nanny Diaries cribs a device from the superior social comedy, 2004's Mean Girls, in which teenage rituals were viewed through an anthropological lens. Here Annie as narrator is an anthropology major who offers a semiotic breakdown of genus "Park Avenue," deconstructed in dioramas at the Museum of Natural History that look like pages from The Official Preppy Handbook.
During her sabbatical from reality in the trenches of Park Avenue, Annie teaches neglected 4-year-old Grayer (Nicholas Art) that eating peanut butter from the jar is a nice break from macrobiotic health food and other outer-borough life lessons. She even grows to love the coddled cuss. In the process, Annie also develops a love-hate relationship with her demanding boss lady, Mrs. X (Laura Linney), a woman driven to extremes by her cruel husband (Paul Giamatti).
The Nanny Diaries comes on the heels of the far bitchier, campy improvement on some mediocre chick-lit, The Devil Wears Prada. But the humanity and spirit that allowed Meryl Streep to redeem her shrewish character in that film is missing from this telling. Linney and the screenwriters try to craft Mrs. X into a victim as well as a tyrant, but the strategy is never particularly convincing. And in doing so, the film's screenwriters have taken any of the schadenfreude fun out of the novel's satirical and shrewdly observed take on lifestyles of the rich and selfish.
In trying to be kind to both nanny and Mrs. X, the film is toothless, too superficial and obvious to be satire, and too judgmental and scolding to be the woman-positive pabulum it aspires to be, where bad behavior is just the result of insufficient parenting and frustrated desires.
The Nanny Diaries would have been a far more satisfying film had it allowed for the truth: that there are entitled and obnoxious folk among us whose behavior can't be "explained" by neglectful husbands or bad role models.
The screenwriters are to blame, too, for spreading Annie so thin, as she splits her attentions between a "Harvard hottie" love interest, a judgmental mother and needy little Grayer. The film could have benefited from more time developing the relationship between Annie and Grayer, the moppet who captures her heart and fuels her outrage at his parents' neglect.
Less incisive than you'd expect of such smarty-pants types, for the most part Berman and Pulcini's critique of social class and Park Avenue pack mentality settles for the cartoonish – with few fresh observations on the conventions of the class. In truth, the women – with their lioness manes and Chanel glasses – border on caricature. Even the presence of such a pedigreed actress as Linney does little to rectify the film's superficial, shallow brand of social comedy that feels more Down and Out in Beverly Hills than Tom Wolfe.
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