It’s hard to put my finger on why I like The Nanny Diaries. There isn’t a single shootout, car wreck, or fist fight in the entire thing; not even one punch thrown to accent a dramatic moment. Not only that, but (male audience members be warned) this is very much a chick flick – be prepared for a lot of whining by several characters about how hard it is to be a woman.
I guess it boils down to two reasons: first, for all its fashion tips and feminism, Diaries is ultimately a movie about kids and family life, two areas that are just as important in the end to men as they are to women, whether we like it or not. And second, it is one of those few movies that succeeds in telling a very engaging story with nothing more than everyday life.
The lead, Annie Braddock (Scarlet Johansson) graduates from college with honors in business. Her mother, a nurse, has spent the last 22 years pulling extra shifts, in between raising Annie alone. (Just for the record, in the book, the protagonist, Nanny, or “Nan,” had a very involved father, who, being a teacher, was a key part of her life and a mentor in her career as a nanny.) She has done this to give Annie something better than what she had, and wants her to go on to an illustrious career in finance.
Annie’s first love is anthropology. Her mother’s reaction, of course, is “how are you going to make a living at that?” Grudgingly, Annie accepts an interview at the prestigious Goldman, Sachs firm, but gags when the interviewer asks her “who is Annie Braddock?” She suddenly realizes she doesn’t know. She rushes out of the interview and into Central Park, where she saves a child from being run over. The mother, Mrs. X (Laura Linny), breathlessly runs up and showers her with thanks. Annie introduces herself as “Annie” and Mrs. X blurts out “Did you say you were a nanny??” Annie immediately finds herself buried in the calling cards of moms from the Upper-East-Side of Manhattan, including Mrs. X.
Repulsed by the finance profession, Annie decides to adopt the persona of
an Upper-East-Side nanny for a summer and treat the experience as an anthropological case study. She narrates the rest of the movie as though dictating a field diary. She finds herself being wined and dined by moms all over Manhattan until she accepts the job with Mrs. X. She tells her mother she’s gotten a finance job and moves to the city.
Much like with a human trafficking syndicate however, once a Manhattan family has a nanny hooked, the sweet talk is over. As Annie arrives at the Xs’ Fifth Avenue apartment, expecting a fun, easy job, she suddenly finds herself stuffed into a bedroom that is more like a closet, and expected to learn to cook and work 24 hours, single handedly raising the X’s five-year-old son, Grayer (Nicholas Art). The first thing Grayer does on seeing her is kick her in the shin and scream “I hate you I want Bertie! (The last nanny).” Annie battles through the next several scenes, trying to find a way to Grayer’s heart, reminding herself that anthropologist “Margarette Mead didn’t run home every time she contracted malaria.”
Grayer soon becomes the least of Annie’s worries, however, as an Upper-East-Side Nanny must also serve as the punching bag for an Upper-East-Side mother’s anxiety, anguish and insecurity. Mrs. X loads Annie down with non-child-related errands to give herself time for shopping, and vents her pain over Mr. X’s infidelity on her. In one scene, she barges into Annie’s room holding a negligee, and demands “This is not mine so it must be yours, right? Right??”
Annie observes “Male monogamy remains an elusive … practice throughout the world. In many Bedouin tribes, powerful men are encouraged to take multiple wives. In contemporary France, mistresses are de rigour and quietly tolerated. But for the women of the Upper-East-Side, adultery is pathologically ignored.”
It takes a while for the audience to meet Mr. X (Paul Giamatti), who the authors of the book describe as a common example of an Upper-East-Side Male, who is “bashing his brains out on Wall Street, so that his wife can have thousand dollar curtains … but he’s missing out on what he has … a wife who craves his attention, and a son who thinks he hung the moon.”
With the strife between his parents, Grayer transfers his affection to his Nanny. In a pivotal scene (above), Annie narrates that “three little words made it a thousand times harder to leave” the job she has learned to hate.
One darkly comic scene was eerily reminiscent of my experience at a “Bar Bench Conference,” where lawyers and judges are “allowed” to voice their grievances against each other. Of course, with things going back to normal the next day, you can probably guess how much the lawyers had to say. Likewise, Mrs. X takes Annie to a Mother-Nanny Conflict Resolution meeting, where Annie joins a collection of third-world women standing against the wall who know better than to say anything.
Laura Linny has a glare that can truly freeze the blood. After awhile, Annie starts jumping in fear every time Mrs. X comes around a corner. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Grayer gets upset and runs straight past his open-armed mother, throwing his arms around Annie. Mrs. X is starring daggers at Annie while Annie frantically begs Grayer “Go to your mom! Go to your mom!”
Having also read the book, I know that it just begged to be put on the screen. Believe it or not, director Robert Pulcini asked the authors of the book if he could make a movie out of it a year before the book was even published. I’d have to say the changes that he made to it are for the better. He starts it off with a fantasy sequence of Annie wandering through the museum of natural history looking at dioramas that depict child-rearing customs from all over the world – coming eventually to dioramas of Manhattan life, where they have “the most prosperous, but idiosyncratic social structure in the world.” In the book, Nan was a veteran nanny, explaining the field to the reader. As she is, Annie is more of the audience’s character, discovering the world of the Upper-East-Side the same time we are. Pulcini also flavors the soundtrack a bit with a few throwbacks to Mary Poppins, and plays jungle sounds and tribal drums over several scenes to emphasize the bizarreness of the rituals Annie encounters.
Johansson plays the role well, involving the audience in her reactions to this bizarre world, and entertaining us with her native New Yorker acting. Giamatti is creepy and devilish as Mr. X, and for a child actor, Art is very impressive. The rest of the cast also does a great job. Pulcini definitely paints a bleak picture of our world, but illustrates a number of excellent points, including that being rich doesn’t guarantee any happiness. Unfortunately, after doing such a great job with the darkness, he feels the need to force in a text-book happy ending in the last five minutes of the movie.
Overall, The Nanny Diaries is an excellent film about an unusual and very thought-provoking subject. And despite the fact that it’s a chick flick, I have to admit it is genuinely touching.
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