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The Nanny Diaries

K.C. Bailey/The Weinstein Company

Review in a Hurry:  Recent college graduate Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) bungles a job interview at Goldman-Sachs by realizing she just doesn't know who she is, then literally stumbles into a gig as a nanny for an Upper East Side power couple (who, in a better movie, would also be Satanists, though their portrayal isn't far off). She must fight to give their adorable son named Grayer the love he needs, find love of her own and remove any of the social bite contained in the source material, the popular novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. The result is pure vanilla: neither funny nor romantic—sad not uplifiting.

The Bigger Picture: Say what you will about McLaughlin & Kraus' book, but right around 2002, it was impossible to step on a plane, wait in line at the DMV or dine at the mall without seeing women of all ages reading The Nanny Diaries. Chick-lit has since fallen out of fashion—there are only so many pink book covers allowed in the universe at any one time—but the elements that made the book so winning seemed easy to transfer to the screen, most notably the cutting look at the rich and the powerful and the vibrant humor of the work itself. Oddly, the filmmakers opted to neuter those elements from the film, opting instead for straightforward cliché over swift satire.

The lantern of cliché shines as soon as Johansson's annoying voice-over begins. In the book, Annie came from an upper middle class upbringing and was a child development major at NYU. In the movie, she's a social rube from (gasp!) New Jersey whose mother is a nurse and whose father lives in a double-wide trailer and can't summon the vaguest idea of how the couple she's been hired by—the Xs (played by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney)–can live in the way that they do.

But she has a minor in anthropology, so she views everything through the rubric of anthropological field study and thus narrates the film as though it's all one zany case study.

As far as conceits go, it's a flimsy one at best, and even Johansson seems a little sickened by it. Otherwise, why would she spend the entire movie looking as if she's about to vomit? It's a pity, because Johansson's range usually allows for sensations other than nausea, but then it's hard to find reason to smile when one is forced to act through trope after trope: Subjugated by the rich? Check. Meet a boy out of your league? Check. Have a small child vomit on you? Check. Get felt up by the smarmy father/husband character? Realize all you want to do is become Louis Leakey? Check and check. (So, fine, maybe the Louis Leakey bit is new, but the idea is clear.)

The saving grace of the movie, however, is the always excellent Linney who plays the clueless ice-queen Mrs. X with more depth and inner turmoil than the script provides. There's darkness inside Mrs. X and when it quivers out of the lines in Linney's face, or via the briefest hitch in her voice, there exists another movie entirely. One where a woman hires a nanny because she realizes her own inadequacies and understands her child needs someone to care for him.

That Annie eventually rises up against her evil employers and creates a paradigm shift in the world of nannies will come as no surprise, nor will anything else in this bland and utterly predictable film. Watching The Nanny Diaries is not an awful way to spend two hours of your life, but one gets the sense that a few changes in storytelling could have turned this adaptation into a winner.

The 180—a Second Opinion:  Alicia Keys' supporting role as Annie's best friend Lynette is the best performance by a top 40 artist since Rick Springfield's star turn in Hard to Hold.