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The setting is Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A fresh college graduate, eager to make some sort of imprint upon the world but clueless about how to properly do so, takes a job—so easily gotten!—as a nanny. If she squints really hard, this young woman can see the position being sorta-kinda related to anthropology, the field she eventually wants to enter. She’s thrilled. Until she finds out that the exhausting, humiliating, and often just plain impossible mother-child-nanny power struggle she’s now engaged in is its own circle of hell.
If The Nanny Diaries sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it before—only it was called The Devil Wears Prada, with a fabulous spring collection standing in for the baby that a slave-driving bitch casually bears, then orders an exasperated lackey to kill herself trying to care for it. Oh: And it was also a book, a novelized bit of composite nonfiction by former New York nannies Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. But this is Hollywood, and the book was predominantly dark and biting. So readers should prepare themselves to see the more precious, message-touting, “In a world…” version of Annie’s story on the big screen. (Yes, Annie’s: The character is also no longer “Nan.”)
The shift in tone is surprising only when you consider the film’s writers-directors, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. The pair may have 2003’s witty Harvey Pekar biopic, American Splendor, on their résumés, but their offbeat sensibility isn’t much in evidence here. The movie is framed as an anthropological study—which would have been more interesting if Mean Girls hadn’t taken a similar approach three years ago—focused on “resourceful” mothers who manage to juggle days full of shopping, pampering, and puking. And, of course, monitoring not their children but their nannies: When Annie (a dowdied-up Scarlett Johansson) runs into her tiny future liege, Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art), and his mother, Mrs. X (Laura Linney), in a park, the mother and son are together only because Mrs. X had just fired Grayer’s latest nanny. Annie isn’t looking to become a sitter—she majored in business—but she’s just blown a big corporate interview, and when Mrs. X mishears her name as her occupation, she begs Annie to work for her. Grayer seems sweet, and Annie needs a job, so she agrees.
Berman and Pulcini at the very least still rather entertainingly eviscerate the book’s main target: well-off women who are mothers in name only. The gorgeously coiffed and wardrobed Linney easily pulls off the icy, deplorable caricature that comprises the bulk of Mrs. X (the authors kept most of the characters anonymous, including Nan/Annie’s love interest, “Harvard Hottie,” played by Chris Evans). The woman mistreats her employees while living for haute couture, bullshit benefits, and general one-upmanship; really, though, she does care that her husband (Paul Giamatti, using his schlubbiness to dirtbag effect) is cheating on her and spends even less time with their bratty son than she does. Linney is careful to let cracks of this show as well.
But even though the end of the story has been changed to emphasize this damnation of absentee parenting, the alteration is really all about making the heroine look good. Annie and her adventures in babysitting are no longer part of a satire but a feel-good fable about growing up: Annie lies to her working-class mother—who at one point randomly insists that “no man is going to squash your dream!”—about taking the lowly job and struggles with “which kind of New Yorker” she is destined to become. The angle would be more palatable if it weren’t mired in sitcom humor (how else to meet the man of your dreams but locked out in a hallway with your pants down?) and treacle (“I wuv you!”). Worse, Johansson just isn’t all that likable in such a comic-everywoman role, appearing stiff as she tries to flail and sputter like more normal 22-year-olds instead of the preternaturally self-possessed one that the actress actually seems to be. One could imagine Prada’s Anne Hathaway getting it right, but apparently she was busy.