Unfortunately for Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney ( ⇒ ), and especially Chris Evans, The Nanny Diaries emerged from the hands of filmmakers who abjectly adhered to Hollywood formula. Maybe it was by choice, maybe they were forced to do so by producers Weinstein, Weinstein & Etcetera– either way, it’s a shame. The movie has appeal, and it had promise, if only because of the anthropology angle which, unfortunately, is treated more as a gimmick than a motif. But there is a fatal flaw and it is basic: the ill-conceived title role, Annie the nanny, is a young woman in need of a spine transplant.
We’re not supposed to notice that she’s a doormat, of course; we’re supposed to be charmed by her, and it is a tribute to Johansson that we almost are. She hides her character’s weakness under a veneer of shyness, a wise and largely successful strategy to manage the pipe dream of a story. She is in very nearly every scene, interacting with characters who are exaggerated stereotypes, which is why this movie qualifies, in my view, as screwball, though it can only be considered a comedy in the Classical sense: happy ending, nobody dies. More accurately, of course, it’s just a flat-out chick flick with every bell and whistle sounded: attractive female leads, no realistic males, children as plot devices, lots of psychodrama played out in sumptuous interiors.
Annie is, needless to say, not a nanny. That’s a job for swarthy women, to judge by the other nannies we glimpse. Annie got the gig after she saved a towheaded boy from a vehicular accident in Central Park. They bond instantly, of course, and suddenly she’s surrounded by overdressed Upper East Side mothers who need nannies. She happens to be at loose ends, having just graduated from a New Jersey college (thus establishing her non-Ivy League regular-girl credentials), so she accepts the job “for the summer” with the towhead’s mother (Linney, in fine form as a rich bitch). This lands her in a vast apartment in Manhattan’s most blindingly white precinct, the Upper East Side, a world of high-and-mighty Caucasians who– in this movie– consider it perilous to cross the park to the other, slightly less white Upper West Side.
Her snobbish new employer doesn’t bother with the names of servants (not that there seem to be any others; the producers evidently didn’t want to spring for more actors), so Annie gets rechristened Nanny, and in keeping with her acceptance of this unabashed insult, Annie/Nanny becomes a menial. She’s the cutest menial since Angela Lansbury donned a fetching lace veil in Gaslight, but Lansbury played a cocky Cockney parlor maid (and she played her to the hilt: aged seventeen, she won an Oscar nomination). In contrast, Annie is a wimp. She cannot stand up to the boy’s mother, or even her own overbearing mother, Judy (Donna Murphy, also in fine form as a stressed-out single parent). Judy’s sole purpose in the script is to pressure daughter Annie to give up her plan to study anthropology and get a degree that would lead to Wall Street wealth. Annie’s resistance takes the form of cowardice: she lies to Judy about being a nanny, and even goes so far as to pretend she’s living with her best friend, Lynette (Alicia Keys, unmemorable except as a pretty face).
The one time Annie rises to boldness is when her hormones get the better of her: she races after and pounces on the male half of this romcom. Enter Chris Evans, a versatile actor who is showing signs of being more than a museum-quality specimen of male pulchritude. Behind the camera, Evans did a solid job directing himself and Alice Eve in Before We Go, a refreshingly equivocal film about two people helping each other through unhappy romances. That movie was also set in Manhattan, but over the course of a night. In contrast, The Nanny Diaries, occupies a decidedly candied Big Apple, all sunshine and wealth. Evans is cast as Romeo– Romeo minus the Montague. In fact, he has name at all, first or last. Throughout the movie, including the credits, he is referred to as Harvard Hottie. That’s as generic as a Romeo gets, and a stupid mistake here, for two reasons. First, it makes Annie no better than the boss-lady who rechristened her. Second, Evans has dramatic nuance, and he brings heart and humor to his character– a character who deserves a name. I will at least honor him with initials.
H.H., when he first meets Annie in the elevator of her employers’ building, has trouble connecting with her. Of course. Such is the way with chick flicks, romcoms, screwball comedies, and indeed most screen romances: screenwriters use animosity and/or a star-crossed situation to foment sexual tension. It was unnecessary here, yet the writers persisted through the first several meetings of A/N and HH, including one where Annie’s in a Betsy Ross get-up, a bit of business that showcases the comic timing and light touch with dialog shared by Evans and Johansson. These two charismatic young players could generate chemistry with anything short of a tree stump or the human equivalents thereof (Megan Fox and Mark Wahlberg pop to mind).
An early false note sounds during those quasi-hostile meetings because there is no reason for anyone to dislike H.H. Especially not Annie, and this is key: her great interest and hope for a profession is in the field of cultural anthropology, which is usefully defined by Duke University as “the study of the human as at once an individual, a product of society, and a maker of history and culture.” Any student needs two things: curiosity and objectivity. Annie has neither about H.H. She views him only as a product of his Manhattan milieu, so she assumes he’s a privileged jerk, and treats him as such. It would have sufficed if Annie had been suspicious of how decent a guy he seems to be, or cautious about trusting him because white privilege tends to produce assholes. That more thoughtful approach would have made Annie kinder, more considerate, and we wouldn’t be left wondering why any man with H.H.’s qualities (and, it is safe to assume, opportunities) would persist in trying to overcome her stubborn prejudice. Continue reading