I've been told by a couple of people who've read The Nanny Diaries and seen the film that the latter is a pale, scrubbed imitation of the book -- to which I reply, 'when was that ever not the case?' I've never read The Nanny Diaries, but I enjoyed the film for what it was -- a jelly-lensed portrait of the awful egomania that exists in that biosphere known as the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Be warned -- this film rarely takes a step that's not telegraphed 20 minutes in advance, but that doesn't mean that the presentation isn't solid, the direction focused and precise, and the acting serviceable in the case of Scarlett Johansson and more so in the case of her two, older co-stars -- Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti, who reunites with his American Splendor team here. Linney and Giamatti play Mr. and Mrs. X -- the cheeky, pointless anonymity was granted to them in the book -- a couple of Manhattan blue-bloods who hire Johansson's naive student character as a live-in nanny for their young son, ridiculously named 'Grayer.'
Johansson meets Mrs. X in Central Park, when a slip of the tongue causes her to be swamped by dog-walking UES housewives who think they've happened upon the Rolls Royce of nanny applicants, as opposed to someone who 'barely speaks English,' as one mother complains in the film. She's soon moved into the house and is essentially performing the role of surrogate mother for the precocious Grayer while his mother attends to more pressing issues, like her husband's possible infidelity and finding the right Burberry jacket to put on. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini handle this opening act of the film with ease, quickly getting us into the fun stuff without going too far in making Johansson's character a poor Cinderella or another far-out character archetype. Instead, she's just a typical college-aged kid who has absolutely no idea where she's going in the world and thinks she can put off the big decisions for a few more months with some easy nanny work. She doesn't realize she's essentially sold herself into indentured servitude.
Kudos are in order for a script that's tight, flexible and stream-lined enough so that the film actually seems to slow down a bit whenever two non-essential recurring characters pop up -- a love interest, played by Chris Evans and a best-friend played by Alicia Keys. Each of them have painfully visible arcs -- you almost want to skip straight to the 'misunderstanding' that will cause trouble with the boyfriend and the 'you're not the same anymore' conversation that will occur with the best friend. It's understandable that the movie has to give Johansson's character some kind of human contacts to bounce off of every once in a while, lest she spend the entire movie wandering through the empty rooms of the giant Manhattan apartment like some big-breasted version of Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining, but there could have been more clever, creative ways to go about getting her character some human interaction than what's dreamt up here. If my friends were as dull as the ones Johansson's character has, I think I'd prefer the company of Mrs. X.
As Mrs. X, Laura Linney has most of the film's heavy lifting; she's tasked with taking her obnoxious middle-aged socialite character to the very brink of irredeemable nastiness and then pulling her back for a third act conversion -- if she goes too far one way or the other the performance won't work, but as expected, she manages to pull it off. As for Giamatti, he's practically reptilian as the philandering, chronically absent Mr. X -- when he smiles, it seems like every muscle in his face is doing calisthenics to make it seem genuine. A lot more of him in the film would only have been a plus. As it is, his screentime is substantially less than Linney's, to the point that it seems he was in and out of this picture in only a few days. As for Johansson, she's adequate as usual, although it doesn't seem from the evidence here that she has any special affinity for children -- an air of detachment is always detectable. You can imagine a young Julia Roberts tearing into this role with a lot more relish.
I've hardly mentioned the plot of the film, because there truly isn't one -- or at least not one that you couldn't figure out without ever having seen the movie or read the book. (In fact, the most serious challenge in adapting the book, the directors told me, was creating a movie out of a story that was almost completely told through listicle-style observations and interior monologue.) What makes The Nanny Diaries work is the little moments that happen in-between the plot -- Mrs. X jabbing her business card at people like a glassy-eyed, female Patrick Bateman, the UES wives actually lining their nannies up, together, against a wall for a group talking-to during a 'wives' meeting,' and poor Grayer being 'entertained' by a couple of boring French clowns at his birthday party, while his mother looks on approvingly. If you're a fan of sharp observational humor and have had occasion to pass by the UES enough times to wonder what goes on inside that bubble, then you might find a lot to like in The Nanny Diaries.