In “The Nanny Diaries,” a culture-shocked Jersey girl takes us through the currents of New York’s Upper East Side, a universe where privilege produces distinct breeds of coldhearted businessmen, cosmetically minded socialites and trophy kids with French tutors and designer diets. Surely, the potential for a stinging satire or a revealing slice of weird subculture exists here. But as presented in conventional mode by formerly sterling writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, of “American Splendor” fame, the jabs are soft and the insights dim.
Semifaithfully adapting Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’ novel, the filmmakers present the story as a field study of the aforementioned Manhattan environs, where natives fill their hollow lives with office affairs, extravagant shopping and charity luncheons. They provide their kids with costly educations and birthday-party mimes but little in the way of personal attention. The latterneed is Nanny’s to fill.
Annie (Scarlett Johansson), a New Jersey-bred recent anthropology grad, accidentally lands a nanny job in the home of a wealthy family referred to as the Xs. Her Mary Poppins fantasies subside fast when she realizes that Mrs. X (Laura Linney) is an unreasonable control freak, Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) is a philandering louse, and her young charge, Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art), is an obnoxious brat — and that their demands on her are 24/7. Eventually, Annie bonds with Grayer and achieves liberation.
The film begins decently. Annie’s vision of Upper East Side rich folk as behavioral-study figures in a museum diorama isn’t profound, but it’s cute in an anthro-pop way. The passages depicting Mrs. X’s demandingness, echoing similar material in “The Devil Wears Prada” but with Linney’s own stamp, are adequately amusing.
But unfortunately, the filmmakers, in an about-face from their original, edgy “American Splendor,” avoid anything substantially sharp or off-center. Standard boss-from-hell and girl-meets-world formulas prevail, complete with a romance — Annie and a bland “Harvard Hottie” (Chris Evans) — and a stream of domestic dramatics.
The result is mush and phoniness rather than a vibrant or biting portrayal of Upper East Side warpedness.
Among the cast, Johansson is agreeable, but her character is too benign to inspire our deep investment and is dullsville next to the outrageously harsh but humanity-tinged Mrs. X, whom Linney almost succeeds in making three dimensional. Giamatti, who was terrific as comic-book everyman Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor,” is formidable but stuck in a one-note role.
The Nanny Diaries **
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Nicholas Reese Art, Paul Giamatti.
Written and directed by Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini; based on the book byEmma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes