Annie (Scarlett Johansson) has just graduated college, where she was pursuing a degree in Anthropology, a subject that she was always passionate about, as evident in her fascination with the people around her and how the world is composed of many different intersecting lives. However, her prospects for the future are not as bright as she’d like them to be – her mother (Donna Murphy) expects her to go into finance, pushing her daughter to pursue a life that may not be particularly exciting, but will at least give her a solid future. Panicking at the prospect of wasting her potential, Annie finds herself inadvertently coming into contact with Mrs X (Laura Linney), a glamour Fifth Avenue socialite who is in desperate need of a nanny for her son, Grayer (???), a precocious young boy who, along with his demanding mother, has accidentally driven away many more patient employees who can’t handle the pressures of the job. However, considering she is desperate for a job that can actually stimulate her and give her the chance to avoid a career she knows she’s going to regret, she enters into employment with this film, working as their nanny, while trying to stay afloat in a city so intent on destroying people like her. In the midst of all the madness, Annie finds herself realizing that even an Anthropology graduate has a lot to learn about others, and herself as well in the process.
The Nanny Diaries is nothing special, which is just about as positive a comment we can give to this film. Based on the acclaimed semi-fictional novel, and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who made one of the most brilliant works of independent comedy in their adaptation of American Splendor), there was a lot of potential embedded in this project, especially when taking into account the endless possibilities of what could be done with the material. The premise asserted onto this film was not one that could necessarily be changed without abandoning the core of the story, which is relatively well-formed. Rather, its the delivery with which Berman and Pulcini seem to struggle, especially when establishing a tone, and the specifics of how to embrace a story that isn’t particularly noteworthy on its own terms. However, its also impossible to deny that beneath the lacklustre execution, The Nanny Diaries is a charming little comedy that infuses some refreshingly biting satire into its tired premise, allowing it to perhaps not be as revolutionary as it could have been, but also a perfectly adequate diversion, where the entertainment value of this quirky film are more than enough to qualify it as something of a worthwhile endeavour for those seeking out a simple but effective comedy that does go about telling its story slightly differently from what we’d normally expect.
The main issue with The Nanny Diaries is that it is adapted from a book that belongs to the endless stream of novels that serve the purpose of just being entertaining, embodying the perfect way to spend a long flight or a lazy day on vacation. This kind of novel rarely, if ever, is able to be adapted into anything all that worthwhile, with the exception of a few cases in which success was found, but only through fundamentally changing the way the filmmakers approach the material, where it sometimes helps to not overthink the material. Berman and Pulcini are certainly not directors to play completely by the rules, as evident in some of their other work, so for them to be tasked with adapting The Nanny Diaries, a novel that would’ve benefitted from a radically different approach was an odd but enticing concept. The reason it doesn’t work, despite the competency of the duo at the helm, is that they don’t make it clear where they want to take this story – part of the film is a straightforward comedy about a young woman and her various misadventures while being employed as a nanny in New York City, and the other part being an attempt at more experimental storytelling, particularly in how the film deals with the various ambiguous literary devices employed in the novel, such as the absence of names for many of the characters. There are certain elements that work on the page, but stand out as being fundamentally flawed when asserted into a visual format.
One of the few aspects of The Nanny Diaries that actually works well, and perhaps even elevates it above the questionable choices made in terms of adapting the stories, are the performances. Occurring right at the peak of her meteoric rise to fame, Scarlett Johansson plays the titular nanny and gives one of her most charming performances to date. The role is undemanding, especially for someone like Johansson, whose natural talents allow her to overcome the mediocre material enough to actually keep us captivated. She’s complemented by the presence of Chris Evans, who is at his most dashing and adorable, playing the love-interest with the elegant designation of “Harvard Hottie”. The duo works well across from each other, showing how this was one of the many viable storylines this film could’ve easily followed, had it paid more attention to making use of the material it was given, rather than trying to comment on every detail of the source. Laura Linney is easily the most memorable part of the film, with her performance as the privileged employer being a great example of what a treasure the actress is. Whether playing her as a larger-than-life socialite who leads a lavishly ignorant life of pure bliss or as someone who undergoes significant challenges herself, particularly in regards to a husband whose philandering she conveniently overlooks for the sake of benefitting her own lifestyle, Linney is incredible. She gives depth to a character that could have so easily been a stereotype, and brings nuance to the more implausible recesses of a pretty despicable, but nonetheless compelling, villain.
The Nanny Diaries is simply a film that believes itself to be smarter than it actually is, which is a problem considering how there was promise, despite the more plebeian nature of the overarching story. This film seems perfectly capable to recognize is that beneath the more conventional qualities, there was a more biting story about the economic divide and social standing – the directors don’t ignore this very clear aspect of the novel at all, but rather seem to struggle with fitting it into the film as a whole. There are entire subplots that go completely unresolved, existing for a scene or two before being abandoned completely, most likely the result of trying to make an appealing film while still giving it some kind of gravitas. The earnest nature of the film allows it to not be seen as a gaudy attempt to charm us, but we ultimately grow weary of the overly saccharine, sentimental absurdity that the film thrives on. It’s a very endearing film, but one that only worked because of the decent performances by the cast, who were able to elevate the material and do more with commenting on the more intricate aspects of the story more than the directors seemed interested in doing themselves. The Nanny Diaries is a lot of fun, but ultimately struggles to be anything more than that. It’s a serviceable comedy with a lot of wasted potential, and had the film been a bit more attentive to the needs of the story, it would have been a much better version of whatever the filmmakers were trying to achieve. It’s worthwhile for the pure entertainment value, which is just enough to keep us engaged without losing the charm that helps bolster an otherwise forgettable film.