Judge Katie Herrell used to be a nanny, but her experiences were too controversial to publish.
A comedy about life at the top, as seen from the bottom.
The Nanny Diaries, the book, on which The Nanny Diaries, the film, is based, is a wonderful, spot-on tale about a do-everything nanny, her dysfunctional employers, and the child who bears the brunt of all the chaos. Because The Nanny Diaries, the book—written by two former real-life nannies—was such an unexpected bestseller and is such a unique tale it harbors a loyal and impassioned audience. And with this loyalty and passion comes extremely high expectations, expectations which very few Hollywood vehicles could meet. Judging by the critical panning of The Nanny Diaries, the film, critics everywhere belonged to this cadre of The Nanny Diaries, the book, fan club, and thus their judgement was clouded by the cinematic accomplishment that is The Nanny Diaries the film, in its own right.
Facts of the Case
Annie (Scarlett Johansson) is a recent college grad who is supposed to go into the business world and make lots of money and live happily after…according to her hard-working nurse of a mother. But Annie, like so many before her, is lost and unsure of herself. After an interview where she can't answer the simplest of questions, "Who is Annie Braddock?," she surreptitiously saves a little boy in the park and thus begins her relationship with the Xs, a Park Avenue family who have fallen victim to all the stereotypical pitfalls that come with living on Park Avenue.
The opening to The Nanny Diaries begins benignly enough. Through a voice-over, Annie reads aloud the contents of her field diary (she is an anthropology minor after all). The subject of her studies is herself as she first navigates the pratfalls of graduating from college. Yes, there is the actual stumble to the stage. Yawn.
Soon Annie is thrust into the big bad world of Manhattan, and as she narrates the different types of people she will encounter upon her exit from the collegiate bubble, these "species" are rendered on screen as a plastic-looking dioramas. The diorama sequences ends all that is benign with The Nanny Diaries.
The diorama scene, set in museum style, is initially off-putting. The sequence seems disgustingly fake and cheesy and entirely like a film that is trying too hard to break convention. But soon the dioramas have faded, swapped out for street scenes where Annie analyzes every passerby to see if they have what she wants to be. Her new subjects are trapped in mid-stride, freeze-framed, as a field book displaying their characteristics pops onto the page. This sequence as well seems overly stylized and cliched, despite its bizarreness.
Combine the dioramas, the freeze-frames, and the voice-over and this film is already heavily layered despite the minimal run-up on the clock. Furthermore, Annie's reading of her field diary indicates that the action has already passed, as Annie is presumably not writing in her diary while walking through Manhattan and reading said diary aloud. But what she is reading is being played-out on screen so that the past becomes the present. Then, the present is altered by the stopping of time (freeze frames) whenever it is convenient. The layers continue to multiply and the overall effect is a bit disorienting.
But soon we meet Mrs. X, the matron of the family for whom the field diary element is actually a funny cinematic and cultural tool. We meet Mrs. X in a snakeskin jacket and her external wealth is a marvel most "control" people have analyzed, been jealous of, or snickered at. Mrs. X is the bastion of fame and wealth that, judging by tabloids' sales the world round, is the fervid subject of many a field diary. And it is at this point that The Nanny Diaries actually seems to be employing smart, unique tactics to analyze what has previously been analyzed ad nauseam: the haves versus the have nots.
The voice-over continues throughout the film, but it plays a smaller role as the film's main characters are introduced. Johansson embodies Annie, efficiently displaying her insecurities while showcasing a strong moral core. It can't be said that Annie is dowdy, but for once Johansson's character is not the object of affection, and the drab wardrobe and dyed brown hair effectively camouflage Johanson's striking appearance.
The Special Feature, "Life At The Top As Seen From The Bottom: The Making of The Nanny Diaries" illuminates the conscious wardrobe decisions regarding Annie and points out that Mrs. X was pointedly dressed like a "peacock," because Mrs. X always, painfully yearns for attention.
The same Special Feature, predominantly filled with annoying back-slapping amongst the cast, has Johansson praising Laura Linney, who plays Mrs. X, for bringing depth and, basically, inserting a kind soul, into the outwardly callous and heartless character. Here the record scratched to a halt for me, because I saw no redeeming qualities in Mrs. X. I pitied her about as equally as I disliked her, but that wasn't because Linney inserted a kind soul into her character. I pitied Mrs. X because Linney seemed to play the character without a soul, without a strong core to which the character might eventually return to or uncover.
One of the messages of the film is that Mrs. X is a good person who falls victim to social pressure and a bad marriage, a message that I think is a cop-out for the bad decisions, inwardly and outwardly, Mrs. X makes. By allowing Mrs. X victim status it likens her to the desperate nannies she, and other women like her, employ, many of whom are immigrants and have few resources to survive in a place like Manhattan. It is a comparison few nannies would be eager to endorse and rightfully so.
Another Special Feature, "Confessions From The Original Nannies: The Authors Of The Bestselling Book," interviewed the novel's authors, Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus. The inclusion of these two women on the DVD served as proof that they supported the project (or the money from the project), which is always a good sign for a book-to-film project. Their interview also offered a welcome look at the larger cultural significance surrounding their novel including the abuse of nannies and the silent voice they harbored for so long. If this were the only Special Feature on the DVD, it would have been enough.
But back to the theatrics. Despite potentially glorifying Mrs. X, the film effectively keeps its sympathies with Annie and her charge Grayer, who is visibly affected by being raised by strangers. Grayer, played by Nicholas Art, is a precocious tike who masters being both a lighthearted kid and a baggage-carrying kid with ease. Mr. X., Paul Giamatti, similarly encapsulates his position in the household (in very few scenes), playing an ass of a man who provides money and status but little else for his family.
With all the strong characters in this film, the setting and scenery could have been easily overshadowed. And while Park Avenue, blessfully, plays a low-key role in the film, as does Manhattan in my opinion, the day-to-day life of child and adult is played-out beautifully. One shot had Annie and Grayer riding up an escalator and the scene was creatively shot upside down. Another scene perfectly illuminates their shadowed bodies as they lay ensconced under a blanket hiding from the parents.
While several scenes featured Annie, Mary Poppins-esque, being digitally swooped over Central Park by a red umbrella (which is the cover image of The Nanny Diaries, the book), overall the film abandoned its initial heavy scene manipulation and instead focused on the plight of a young woman and her charge as they battle the dysfunction of others.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Nanny Diaries the book, really is a fabulous read and the movie takes too many liberties with narration and scene-setting. What was already rich with juxtaposition and irony, becomes overwhelmingly so when played out with umbrella-flying nannies and Park Avenue bingers hunched over a diorama toilet.
If you're a book person, read The Nanny Diaries. If you're a movie person watch The Nanny Diaries. But don't read A and then watch B and compare, because that's just not fair.
Not Guilty, but sometimes life at the bottom isn't as funny as when it's viewed from the top.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Life At The Top As Seen From The Bottom: The Making Of The Nanny Diaries
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