the-nanny-diaries-5-31-09A few months ago promo items for The Nanny Diaries started popping up everywhere. A poster at the Cineplex. The tie-in novel at the book store. Scarlett Johansson’s face was all over the place, but where was the movie? Well, it was moved from a prime early summer slot to late August, traditionally the dumping ground for troubled movies. Rumors flew around the internet that the movie was a bomb; that they did massive reshoots to salvage the allegedly messy movie. The studio spin on the delay was that an August release put the film in a better position come awards time. I can tell you two things: The Nanny Diaries is no where near the disaster that internet pundits were predicting, but it ain’t going win any awards either.

The story is a roman a clef written by two former Manhattan nannies masquerading as an anthological study of that city’s Upper East Side Clan. Johansson plays Annie, a university grad with a degree in finance and a minor in anthropology who decides she needs some life experience before she sets off for a career in banking.

After a chance encounter in Central Park with Mrs. X (Laura Linney), who mistakes the name Annie for the word Nanny, she’s hired to look after young Grayer (Nicholas Art) a sweet but spoiled rich kid. Mr. (Paul Giamatti) and Mrs. X are the poster couple for dysfunction, absentee parents who feel it is more important to attend a seminar on childrearing with their Park Avenue friends than actually stay home with their kid. They treat Annie like a child rearing machine, not a person, rarely giving her any time off and forbidding her to date. But before you can say Nanny 911 a rich, handsome law student (Chris Evans) sets his sights on Annie and things become strained on the Upper East Side.

There are no surprises in The Nanny Diaries. Everyone learns appropriate life lessons regarding the error of their ways, and somehow you know that young Grayer will end up in good hands. Lurking inside the mushy chick lit story is a class struggle between the pompous rich and the wise people who rely on them for a paycheck. It’s been done before and better, but while The Nanny Diaries doesn’t really rise much beyond the level of a Saturday night sitcom, it does offer some mild pleasures.

There are laughs scattered throughout, and although they become fewer and further between as the minutes tick on, Johansson’s deadpan anthological voice over in the film’s opening moments is amusing and peaks interest in the story to come. The movie doesn’t live up to the promise of the opening, but a bit of magic realism with a bank logo that comes to life to convince Annie to become Mary Poppins for the summer is imaginative and fun.

The cast is a little higher end than you might expect, given the lowered expectations of the story. Johansson slides by with her usual pout firmly in place, but does sparkle in some of the film’s lighter moments.

Laura Linney could play Mrs. X in her sleep. She doesn’t stretch here, but does offer up some great moments of withering condescension and contempt. The role becomes less interesting when she tires to bring some real character to the script’s thinly written caricature. As a Cruella de Ville Jr. she’s all surface, but it’s an entertaining surface.

The biggest surprise is Paul Giamatti in the small supporting role of Mr. X. He’s clearly only here because the directors, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, were the team behind his breakout hit American Splendor. That’s the solitary reason I can see for such an interesting, talented actor to take such a characterless and underwritten role. He does the best he can with what he’s given, but as Mr. X he’s simply a stereotype of the cheating workaholic we’ve seen so many times before.

The Nanny Diaries is formulaic, predictable stuff, but is very nearly saved by Johansson and Linney’s winning performances.