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'Nanny' undearest

The social bite of the popular novel fades into a generic chick flick.

August 24, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

There's a throwaway gag near the end of "The Nanny Diaries" that hints at some of what's so perplexing and off-the-mark about this plodding and generic adaptation, which by rights should have been pure, eat-the-rich summer fun: Relaxing on the beach in Nantucket, a Park Avenue dowager shoos away her 6-year-old grandson when his nanny dashes off to use the bathroom. See, Grandma doesn't want to be disturbed -- she's on the last chapter of "The Devil Wears Prada."

It's not particularly funny as moments go, but it is particularly telling. Like its boring heroine, "The Nanny Diaries" ambivalently mocks what it aspires to, or aspires to what it mocks. . . . one or the other, it's hard to tell. Based on the 2002 novel "The Nanny Diaries," written by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the movie provides a more-or-less faithful enactment of the major plot points, taking care to omit most of what made the book enjoyable. Surprisingly well executed and well received for a co-written hatchet job, the novel paved the way for an avalanche of revenge-of-the-underling tales of which the far more tantrum-y and mean-spirited "Prada" was a major part. As it happened, the devil not only beat the nanny to the screen, but it pulled off the rare feat of improving significantly on its source material. So it seems especially self-defeating for a character in "The Nanny Diaries" to be so caught up in "The Devil Wears Prada," as though the "The Nanny Diaries" were holding up "The Devil" as a standard and then failing to reach it.

It's especially surprising given the pedigree of its writer-directors, former documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who co-wrote the excellent Harvey Pekar biopic "American Splendor." Nothing that was quirky or inventive about that film is in evidence here, however. The story has been reduced to so much condescending chick-flickery that adding a twist at the end pulls what remained of the movie's teeth and turns it into straight-ahead ego-porn for DIY mommies.

The book was based on the experiences of its authors, child-psychology majors who put themselves through college working as nannies for the super rich of the Upper East Side, logging 30 such jobs between them. The characters of Nanny, Mr. and Mrs. X and 4-year-old Grayer may have been composites, but they were so dead-on they launched a thousand paranoid trips along Park Avenue. The million little details that brought to life the rarefied world of financiers, trophy wives, their neglected offspring and the put-upon servant classes that cater to them have been distilled here into a cute (but suspiciously familiar) device hinging on the main character's new back-story.

Scarlett Johansson plays Annie, known throughout most of the film as "Nanny," a recent college graduate who bungles her interview at an investment bank and accidentally lands a gig as Grayer's (Nicholas Reese Art) caretaker when she saves him from being hit by a scooter in Central Park. Unlike the Nanny of the novel, an NYU child-development major from a warm, upper middle-class family, Johansson's Annie/Nanny is a recent graduate who majored in business, minored in anthropology and is so thrown for a loop by life that she orders a burger at Bergdorf's. Her mother (Donna Murphy), a grim-faced nurse, raised her on her own and dreams of Annie transcending her background (her dad lives in a double-wide trailer!) by way of a job on Wall Street. Annie, naturally, dreams of becoming an anthropologist, a la Margaret Mead.

This allows the filmmakers to catalog the various tribes of New York by placing them in individual dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. The diorama device is fitting, because we're given next to no glimpse into the inner life of Mrs. X -- the trophy wife of a master of the universe whose fortress is forever being assailed by other, younger aspiring trophy wives. Mrs. X is played by the fabulous Laura Linney, who, burnished to a high gloss, perfectly embodies the brittle, miserably lonely socialite whose days appear to be an uninterrupted orgy of "me-time." Here, however, Mrs. X has been stripped of the keening desperation that made her character so riveting in the book. Her demands are presented as little more than a catalog of injustices perpetrated on our heroine instead of as frantic attempts to live up to a standard of perfection so exotic and perpetually out of reach as to be all but designed to drive people insane.

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