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. Not long after, I was 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, but I came away with a veritable master’s degree in property management. Was that what I signed on for? Not exactly. But 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 a tell-all book never crossed my mind. Boss hate, though, has become something of a literary cottage industry in recent years, with the appearance of several surprise bestsellers about the disgruntled underlings of the rich and famous (or the merely rich), most of which are so fatally predictable in their imperious bile-spewing as to make you wonder when some CEO will counter the trend with the scandalous 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’s heavily publicized roman à clef about an NYU student who takes a job caring for the four-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), but rather a crudely written screed against the sinful indulgences—and poor parenting skills—of the moneyed elite, fascinating only in its frequent blurring of the line between resentment and envy. For all her self-righteous indignation at being asked to pick up Mrs. X’s dry cleaning, the book’s nanny (called Nanny) at least acknowledges the seductive pull of the privileged world in which she is a periodic guest star, sure as she is 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 one of the few white, college-educated workers in a field dominated by dark-skinned immigrants goes virtually unmentioned.)
The film version of The Nanny Diaries, which was written and directed by the husband-and-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. Chiefly, it makes Nanny into a more appealing figure (and not just because she’s played by Scarlett Johansson), here a child-care novice rather than a seasoned pro, and possessing a markedly less odious temperament than her literary precursor (who didn’t seem to like kids very much in the first place). They’ve also deprived Nanny’s charge, Grayer X (Nicholas Reese Art), of some of his brattier behaviors, which helps to make 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 on-screen 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, who 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 disparate tones, oscillating wildly from under-the-skin, Guare-like satire to screaming, over-the-top parody. For all their skill with actors (as Mrs. X, Laura Linney does her best) and knack for filming Manhattan burnished by a radiant 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 and copies of The Wall Street Journal. That’s all well and good, 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.
Curiously, the most compelling (if only half-formed) idea here 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 The Nanny Diaries gives us a half-cocked martyr movie about a plucky prole sticking it to the corrupt bourgeoisie: Joan of (Central) Park.