'The Nanny Diaries'

Adaptation of book works for and against film version

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What works on the page can be perplexing (or off-putting) on the screen.

It's one thing to read "The Nanny Diaries" and meet the family known simply as X. It's another to hear Laura Linney introduce herself in the movie with "Hi, I'm Mrs. X" and then produce a card stamped with "Mrs. X" and a phone number.

The bones of the tell-all book, a juicy example of chick or revenge lit, are in the film, but some changes rankle and some elements that are retained don't work.

'The Nanny Diaries'
  • Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti.
  • Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini.
  • Rating: PG-13 for language.
  • Web site: http://www.thenannydiariesmovie.com/

The film stars a brunette Scarlett Johansson as an accidental nanny, a 21-year-old who studied finance and anthropology in college but stumbles when an interviewer asks who she is.

"I have absolutely no idea," she realizes, which leads to weighing the question on a park bench and a fateful encounter with Mrs. X and her 5-year-old son, Grayer (Nicholas Art). He initially seems adorable but proves to be a willful, spoiled hellion once Annie turns into Nanny for his Upper East Side family.

Mrs. X is a Smith College graduate who ran an art gallery until she married Mr. X (Paul Giamatti), an absent, ill-tempered, wealthy workaholic. Mrs. X concentrates on what could be called "24-hour me time," spending her days shopping, arranging charity benefits and attending Parents League meetings, even though she almost never parents.

She and her husband leave that to Annie, who bonds with Grayer, particularly once she sees how he is starved for affection from his father. She nicknames him Grover and starts to break the house rules -- they range from thrice-weekly French lessons to a ban on subways and naps -- to make their lives bearable.

But life in the X household grows more tense, leaving Annie to ponder dates with the cute Harvard grad (Chris Evans) who lives in the building and a life she can call her own.

The movie reunites Giamatti with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the husband and wife team behind "American Splendor."

One of the best movies of 2003, it used Giamatti as comic book writer Harvey Pekar along with the real Pekar, cartoon illustrations and jazz favorites to tell its story.

Here, the pair, doubling as directors and screenwriters, create a framework for the story that uses Annie's anthropology studies to introduce museum exhibits such as Upper East Side women in mid-spa treatment or "fasting rituals," i.e., bulimia.

Although that device comes full circle, it feels artificial and unnecessary, plus I never bought Linney and Giamatti as a couple. They also up the pressure by making Annie the daughter of a single mom-nurse who scrimped so her daughter could go to college and live a comfortable life.

As with the adaptation of "The Devil Wears Prada," which a character appears to be reading on the beach, "Nanny Diaries" gives Mrs. X a chance to let her defenses down and betray some human emotion. That's all well and dandy, and Linney is very good, but then the movie tacks on an ending that, if it were on "Seinfeld," would violate the "no hugging, no learning" rule.

"Devil Wears Prada" managed to redeem Miranda in a way that didn't violate the spirit of the book.

"Nanny Diaries" isn't as funny as it should be, but it builds a convincing bond between Nanny and little Grayer and creates a world where ladies who lunch lament divorce settlements of $1 million.

It nails the look of Park Avenue parents, such as Mrs. X, with her perfectly highlighted and styled hair, expertly applied makeup and Dior dresses. But if you really want the skinny on nannies (fictitious, but researched in reality by authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus), use the book as a movie chaser.

Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. First Published August 23, 2007 10:45 PM


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