Recent college graduate Annie (Scarlett Johansson) approaches childcare in Manhattan with the anthropological zeal of Margaret Mead in Samoa in “The Nanny Diaries,” a new adaptation of the chick-lit best-seller. From her “field notes” narration to fantasies of dioramas in the Museum of Natural History devoted to “The Upper West Side Mom,” it’s the only way this working-class Jersey girl can begin to understand a world where a woman can say, with a straight face, “Even though I don’t have a job, I just don’t have enough time to myself.”
That woman is Mrs. X (Laura Linney), and she’s a real piece of work. Married to a wealthy Wall Street type (Paul Giamatti), Mrs. X devotes herself to charity and “me time,” leaving almost all interaction with her pre-school son Grayer (Nicholas Art) to Annie. While the kid has a history of being hostile with nannies over this sort of treatment — Mrs. X forbids naps because “I prefer him tired when I get home” — Annie wins him over with a combination of TLC and the forbidden pleasures of peanut butter and jelly straight from the jar.
But, in best “Devil Wears Prada” fashion, Annie gets swept up into a social atmosphere not her own, working for a woman who is totally exploiting her. Will she lose the friendship of her clear-headed pal Lynette (Alicia Keys)? Does the man she calls “Harvard Hottie” (Chris Evans) really want a relationship or is he just slumming? And what will her mother (Broadway legend Donna Murphy) say when she discovers that, after she’s slaved for years as a nurse to put her daughter through college, Annie is throwing away her business education to clean up after some rich lady’s kid?
It’s a pity that the answers to these and other questions aren’t more interesting, frankly, because directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini made their feature directing debut with “American Splendor,” one of the best movies made in this country in the last five years. And while “Nanny Diaries” doesn’t represent a horrible sophomore slump, it’s certainly a letdown by comparison. The whole anthropology shtick is cute but wears thin, particularly since “Mean Girls” did almost the same thing. (In the latter film, narrator Lindsay Lohan describes high school like a zoologist studying animals in the wild.)
Linney steals the show as a brittle social X-ray — a quick moment where she guiltily allows herself to eat one canapé at a cocktail party tells you everything you need to know about this woman’s life — but the movie can’t resist having her learn something at the end, and it just feels like a safe, boring Hollywood cheat. At least Giamatti, who deserved an Oscar for his work in “Splendor” and didn’t even get nominated, both fully inhabits his type-A rotter and is spared the indignity of having to reform.
“The Nanny Diaries” does at least remain light on its feet, and cinematographer Terry Stacey joins the ranks of those filmmakers with a gift for making New York City look absolutely magical. Here’s hoping that the very talented Springer and Pulcini get a crack at a script that’s worthy of their talents for their third time at bat.