It’s hard to account for the curious emptiness of The Nanny Diaries (The Weinstein Company). It’s written and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, who made the lively underground-comic romance American Splendor. The source material is the dishy roman à clef by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, and the movie is stuffed with appealing A-list actors. It should have been a snappy, catty diversion on the order of The Devil Wears Prada. Yet watching the movie is a nonexperience—like the Upper East Side apartment where most of the action takes place, it’s lavishly appointed but joyless.
The opening scene in the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan has Annie (Scarlett Johansson), a recent anthropology grad, walking us through a hall of dioramas featuring New York social types: the Upper East Side socialite, the Tribeca fashionista, the Park Slope lawyer. The voiceover establishes that the story will be structured like an anthropologist’s field journal—a cutesy gimmick that would have played better if the rest of the movie didn’t feel like a forced march through even stiffer tableaux vivants. After botching her first postcollegiate job interview, Annie fumbles her way into a nannying gig with a superwealthy Park Avenue couple, the Xes (Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti). Their little boy, Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art), is one of those thoroughly synthetic movie children, a shin-kicking monster who suddenly transforms into a pliant darling when Annie lets him eat peanut butter out of the jar.
You can program these elements into your rom-com cliché generator and figure out the rest: Mr. X will indiscreetly cheat on his wife, placing Annie in an impossible position. Mrs. X will ignore her son, micromanage her nanny, and amass luxury goods on Madison Avenue. And a generic prepster known only as Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans) will see past Annie’s crabby demeanor (and the humiliating Betsy Ross costume she’s forced to wear to a July 4 event) and find the potential love interest beneath.
Social satire—especially class satire of the sort this movie clumsily attempts—thrives on texture and detail: What kinds of condiments are stocked in the Xes’ vast refrigerator? What was the Harvard Hottie’s major in school? What’s the backstory of Annie’s friendship with the far more self-assured Lynette (Alicia Keys)? But instead of fleshing out Annie’s field journal with specifics, The Nanny Diaries gestures vaguely at archetypes familiar from other movies and TV shows: the Type-A supermom; the soulless, workaholic father; the Manolo-mad working girl. Rather than making you laugh, it’s content to remind you of things that might have made you laugh in 1998, if you had a high tolerance for Sex and the City.
The script tries to amplify the class conflict by adding a plot element not in the book: Annie’s working-class single mother (played, incongruously, by the regal Donna Murphy) is kept in the dark about the nature of Annie’s summer job, presumably because she didn’t put her child through college in order to indenture her to the leisure class. There’s also an insultingly perfunctory nod to the socioeconomic reality of nanny culture: When an immigrant nanny at a play group describes how she’s missing out on the lives of her own children in order to raise someone else’s, Johansson gives her a blankly sympathetic stare. A beat, and we cut to the next scene of Annie’s comic travails, never to see that character again. I’m not asking for a documentary on global labor conditions, but this token “What about the brown people?” moment only calls attention to the bubble the rest of the movie takes place in.
Laura Linney is almost too good as the deluded, materialistic Mrs. X. Her ability to show the sorrow beneath this trophy wife’s brittle exterior—or rather, her inability not to show it—undercuts the comic function of her role as written. Instead of a love-to-hate-her villainess, she emerges as the movie’s tragic heroine, a Park Avenue Emma Bovary. Casting Giamatti as a business tycoon is an offbeat choice, but his dead-eyed Mr. X is genuinely frightening. As for the inexpressive Johansson, she continues to prove that, though she can be charming as the passive object of others’ desire, her ability to carry a movie on her own is easily lost in translation.