Shortly after graduating from film school, I took a part-time job as the assistant to a successful movie and television director who told me I’d be handling a mix of personal and professional responsibilities. I was soon put to work maintaining the good humor of the tenants at said director’s two multi-unit apartment buildings. I didn’t learn much about filmmaking in those years, but I came away with a veritable master’s degree in property management. (To this day, I can tell you the proper procedure for posting a “pay rent or quit” notice, and what to do if and when the Los Angeles Housing Department files criminal charges against you.) Was that what I signed on for? Not exactly. But the hours were flexible and the pay decent, and even on the worst days — the ones when I was berated for my incompetence and denied the chance to speak a single word in my defense — the thought of writing some petty, tell-all book never crossed my mind. Of late, though, boss blowback has been all the rage in the literary world, with several surprise best-sellers by or about the disgruntled hired hands of the rich and famous (or the merely rich) — books so fatally predictable in their imperious bile-spewing that you wonder when some CEO will counter the trend with the tell-all memoir The Assistant Shows Up Late, Makes Personal Calls on Company Time and Is Delusional Enough to Think That I Should Actually Care About Her Feelings.
It took me a good five years to catch up with The Nanny Diaries, former New York nannies Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’ heavily publicized roman à clef about an NYU student who takes a job caring for the 4-year-old son of an Upper East Side businessman (Mr. X) and his society-lady wife (Mrs. X). When I did, I found the book neither “deliciously funny” (The New York Times) nor “impossible to put down” (Vogue), and certainly nothing that any sane person should mention in the same breath as Edith Wharton (the opinions of Entertainment Weekly notwithstanding). Instead, I found a crudely written screed against the sinful indulgences — and poor parenting skills — of the moneyed elite, which provided a certain base fascination by frequently blurring the line between resentment and envy. For all her self-righteous indignation at being asked to pick up Mrs. X’s dry cleaning or make dinners that require more than microwave preparation, the book’s nanny (called Nanny) at least acknowledges the seductive pull of the privileged world in which she is a guest star, even if she’s sure that she’d be a better mother — and an all-around nicer person — if the Manolo Blahnik were on the other foot. (The fact that Nanny is herself one of the few white, college-educated workers in a field dominated by dark-skinned immigrants goes virtually unmentioned.)
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The film version of The Nanny Diaries, which was written and directed by the husband-wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is a largely faithful adaptation that nevertheless manages to improve upon the source material in several key respects. For starters, it makes Nanny into a more appealing figure (and not just because she’s played by Scarlett Johansson) — a child-care novice rather than a seasoned pro and with a markedly less odious temperament than her literary precursor (who didn’t seem to like kids very much in the first place, and whose list of grievances against her employers includes such crimes as being asked to show up for work early the morning after a late graduation-night party). They’ve also relieved Nanny’s charge, Grayer X, of some of his brattier behaviors and cast the role with a genuinely adorable moppet named Nicholas Reese Art. That makes the story’s central conceit — that Nanny sticks around (instead of going out and organizing a workers’ revolution) because of her feelings for the boy — a lot easier to swallow onscreen than it was on the page.
But Berman and Pulcini, former documentarians who segued to features with the beautifully rendered American Splendor, can spin only so much cinematic silk from literary leather. Like the book, the Nanny Diaries movie never finds a dramatic center, hopscotching between Nanny-Grayer bonding sessions, Nanny’s flirtations with the upstairs neighbor known as Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans, whom we’re supposed to believe Johansson thinks is out of her league), and the Xes’ gradual progression toward becoming the Exes. It’s also a jumble of dissonant tones, oscillating wildly between under-the-skin, Guare-like satire and screaming, over-the-top parody — never more so than in a spectacularly ill-conceived bit in which Nanny and Grayer attend a play date at the home of a coked-up former beauty queen. For all their skill with actors and knack for filming Manhattan burnished in a radiant autumnal glow, the filmmakers don’t feel nearly the same affinity for this tony, uptown crowd that they did for Harvey Pekar and his scrappy Cleveland cohorts. There, they found the soulful artist lurking beneath the crusty, curmudgeonly exterior. Here, they see only cardboard figures in an absurd landscape, right down to their comic-book obscuring of Mr. X (played, when you can see him, by Splendor’s Paul Giamatti) behind cell phones, copies of The Wall Street Journal and other bodily appendages.
That’s all well and good, I suppose, provided you believe that the idle rich are as idle and contemptible as everyone says they are, and that those of us who work for a living are worthy of canonization. In the film version of The Devil Wears Prada, the Anna Wintour surrogate Miranda Priestly was, if not fully redeemed, at least faintly humanized by the crumbling of her own marriage; admittedly, she had one of the world’s biggest fashion magazines to run, while Mrs. X (well played, under the circumstances, by Laura Linney) is basically a stay-at-home mom with no evident time for mothering. Yet, The Nanny Diaries leaves you with the queasy feeling that, even if Mrs. X were to do an about-face and end up winning the Mother of the Year award, she’d still be held in abject contempt. At the heart of The Nanny Diaries, there’s a half-formed idea that has less to do with class than with parenting — how parents can, out of fear or selfishness or both, abdicate the responsibility of child-rearing to self-appointed experts and Ivy League grade schools, and how when a marriage goes south, children can become assets akin to investment accounts or property deeds. That’s a rich subject for a film, but instead we get a half-cocked martyr movie about a plucky prole sticking it to the corrupt bourgeoisie: Joan of (Central) Park.
THE NANNY DIARIES | Written and directed by SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN and ROBERT PULCINI, based on the novel by EMMA McLAUGHLIN and NICOLA KRAUS | Produced by RICHARD N. GLADSTEIN | Released by MGM and the Weinstein Company | Citywide