Having set the standard for contemporary chick-lit adaptations, “The Devil Wears Prada” is a tough act to follow. The clothes, the attitude, the scene-stealing, Oscar-nominated work from Meryl Streep – anything would pale by comparison.
But “The Nanny Diaries” especially does. It might have seemed like solid, sufficiently mindless summer entertainment otherwise.
Based on the 2002 guilty-pleasure read by former New York nannies Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the film has a strong cast (Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti) and fleeting moments of dead-on satire. It remains essentially true to the book with a few tweaks here and there, until it loses its bite and suddenly goes all soft and gushy at the end.
In rare regular-person mode, the va-va-voomy Johansson capably stars as Annie Braddock, a young woman who’s unsure of what to do with her life after college. She wants to be an anthropologist, while her more practical mother (Donna Murphy) wants her to transcend her working-class New Jersey upbringing with a career in finance.
After a miserable job interview, Annie literally stumbles into a nanny gig for a posh couple on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (Linney and Giamatti) and their bratty son, Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art). To protect the guilty, the couple has been dubbed Mr. and Mrs. X in both the book and the movie.
Mrs. X seems nice enough when they first cross paths. So Annie figures, why not live a luxurious life for a few months while I work through my post-academic agita? But Mom quickly reveals herself to be a control freak, with very specific ideas about how every moment of Grayer’s days should be occupied (the Guggenheim, organic snacks and nothing that involves public transit or the West Side). Grayer is, of course, a tiny terror until the moment he does an abrupt about-face and becomes a playful, loving angel.
At the same time, Mrs. X is too busy shopping and lunching and planning fundraisers to take part in any of these activities herself. Mr. X is so consumed with conquering the corporate world, he barely acknowledges that he has a wife and a son. With her fine patrician features, Linney is ideal for the role. She’s enough of a subtle actress to reveal glimmers of vulnerability beneath the brittle, bony exterior. Giamatti might seem an odd choice given some of the shlubby parts he’s played in the past, but he’s so surprisingly good here, too, you wish his character weren’t drawn so two-dimensionally.
Similar to “Prada,” increasingly capricious demands and explosive pratfalls ensue. Annie, who’s referred to throughout as the more generic Nanny, repeatedly makes a fool of herself in front of the cute boy upstairs, known only as Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans from the “Fantastic Four” movies). Her sassy best friend (an underused Alicia Keys) is relegated to looking on disapprovingly at the mess Annie has gotten herself into.
Anyone could have directed this material; “The Nanny Diaries” wasn’t exactly great literature. The real letdown comes from knowing that the film is from Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the husband-and-wife writing-directing team behind the thrillingly inventive “American Splendor,” which also starred Giamatti as comic-book writer Harvey Pekar.
Here, their collaborative creative abilities seem to have been watered down and squelched to appeal to the widest possible audience. They tried to inject some visual whimsy into the story by depicting these rich, white people run amok as if they were species to be studied in diorama form at the Museum of Natural History. But the use of a “Mary Poppins”-style red umbrella (an image from the book’s cover) feels like too obvious a metaphor.
While Berman and Pulcini vividly depict a glossy New York, a city they both clearly know well, they don’t provide any fresh or nuanced insights into the class disparities that exist there: “Dear Diary, The rich are different. The end.”
‘THE NANNY DIARIES’
Rating: PG-13 for language
Length: 105 minutes
Playing at: Opens Friday at Century 20 Park Place, Century 20 El Con Mall, Century Park 16, Foothills