Review: “Nanny” loses humor in adaptation

“The Nanny Diaries” opens in a museum of natural history. Displays depict cultures over time, mannequin families locked in generic expressions appropriate to anything from “How was your day at the office” to “A lion ate little Jimmy.” These waxen statues anticipate the rigor mortis stereotypes to which we will soon be introduced.

Making fun of the wealthy—of their pampered ways, shallow sensibilities, and dysfunctional families, stands as a time-honored tradition in America. The Marx Brothers, Eddie Murphy, and countless others have employed well-to-do stereotypes so often it could rank as a subgenre of comedy.

But “Diaries” chooses to eschew to these tired but true routes, and the movie takes the pratfall.

The novel of the same name was praised for its wit and spent 30 weeks on the bestseller list. A voyeuristic journey into the parenting practices of the ultra rich, the book enjoyed both wide publicity and its kissing cousin, commercial success. Written by two women who had served in the profession on the affluent Upper Eastside of New York, they had plenty of raw material to work with.

There were reportedly more than a few uneasy parents. But given the material, who was going to stand up and complain, “They’re writing about me?”

One can only speculate about the intentions of the adaptation.

The writing and directing team brings the odd combination of inexperience and success, receiving an Academy Award nomination for the creative scripting on their first feature film, “American Splendor.” A portrayal of a real-life and somewhat quirky comic book writer Harvey Pekar, that art-house favorite served up humor dry and wry.

But this approach does not work with the gentry, whose lifestyles, while viewed as offensive and indulgent, are not generally considered eccentric. Unlike Pekar, these characters, stranded without incidents against which their fragilities are ridiculed or mocked, are simply boring and off-putting.
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We are introduced to the inner sanctums of the privileged through the eyes of Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson).

She just wants to decompress and take a look-see at the world after receiving her undergrad degree. Her mother (Donna Murphy), who sacrificed to get her daughter through college, encourages her to get a job in finance. Although she's grateful, our fledgling wage earner finds the button-down world unattractive.

While sitting on a park bench contemplating her navel, she instinctively springs forth, rescuing a young boy from an oncoming disaster and sending the sudden heroine into one of her own. His mother’s gratitude craftily becomes a seductive offer to nanny the kid (Nicholas Reese Art), which Annie reluctantly accepts.

In Annie’s diary she names her new employer (Laura Linney) Mrs. X, relegating her to specimen status, to be weighed and measured as if by an anthropologist, a profession she finds attractive. There’s no way she could have known that beyond the doormen, and up the elevators lay a truly foreign culture.

Stepping over her new home’s threshold, she enters a social warp—a land of horror with a new breed of people, including a surly maid, an employer suddenly turned demanding and mean-spirited, and a difficult child.

Her sudden Cinderella status catches her unaware. Unlike the legendary fairy tale beauty, Annie can just walk out the door; but she doesn’t, citing concern for the boy to whom she’s become attached.

And Prince Charming?

Scientifically labeled Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans), his apartment is above the Xs. He denies genuine membership in the Upper East Clan, but the behavior of the company he keeps says otherwise, which even in the face of his apology, is appalling.

Hottie’s friends' openly elitist and vile contempt towards Annie is indicative of the script. It may either be interpreted as the unmitigated and disturbing truth, wide-of-the mark humor, or both.

In the face of increasing abuse from Mrs. X, Annie becomes the caboose on a train of sadomasochism—the husband belittles the wife, who in turn browbeats Annie. Sweeping the ashes from the hearth would be a vacation.

As characters, neither Mrs. X nor her husband (Paul Giamatti) exceeds the depth of cardboard cut-outs. Mr. X, in a less than compelling stereotype, uses a spread open newspaper to separate himself physically and mentally from his family.

Alicia Keys, as Annie’s friend, appears in her second motion picture, and provides the little life to be found. She and the spirited Donna Murphy prove exceptions to the quite literal mold. At times, Johansson also provides a spark, but there’s just not enough kindling for it to catch.

The problem stems from the fact that this picture actually resembles a diary, which, without a bit of invention and imagination, often reads with the dryness of a dictionary. With the rare exception of adolescent adventures, its entertainment value is at best, marginal.

Grade: D

Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read all the Examiner critics' reviews.

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