Monday, October 08, 2007

Review: The Nanny Diaries

You know something’s going seriously wrong with a movie when you spend most of it looking forward to the next screening, and that screening is Resident Evil: Extinction. I had no great hopes for The Nanny Diaries, from the American Splendor team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, but no earthly idea that it would be quite this terrible; if my negativity has a trace of glee to it, I would confess that amid a stodgy diet of comparative mediocrities like The Kingdom, Michael Clayton and Death Proof, the sheer awfulness of this childcare comedy actually feels like something worth commenting on.

Imagine lobotomising Sofia Coppola and asking her to remake The Devil Wears Prada for the au pair profession, and you might have something close to this lamebrained mess, but its singular ability to be shrill, smug and amazingly vapid at the same time owes just as much to the casting. Scarlett Johansson is coerced into all her most listless affectations and coy mannerisms – imagine her saying “I was the Chanel bag of nannies” and you can hear how ruinously the film goes down a dim, Sex and the City-fied voiceover route as opposed to, say, being funny, perhaps by adopting any workable comic vocabulary of its own.

Still, a far more precipitous disaster is Laura Linney, as the Upper East Side, murders-as-she-smiles Stepford Wife to whom Scarlett’s Annie becomes summarily indentured. Her brilliantly concise high society gorgon in The House of Mirth gets unpacked into feature-length caricature, swaddled in unwise Christian Dior, trussed up with nonsensical hair, and unleashed, mercilessly, at an audience who want her dead within minutes. Linney, otherwise enjoying a terrific year at the movies, proves not that she can marshal the delicious, grandstanding condescension of a Streep in Prada, but that she’s quite capable of lapsing, in a role this weakly sketched, into the calcified and witchy nastiness of bad Anjelica Huston.

Going on to outdo Igby Goes Down for upscale misanthropy, the movie is mainly enamoured of its luxuriant bedlinen, shoe racks and Chris Evans’s biceps – certainly not of its actual people, who are given mere letters for names (in the case of Linney and Paul Giamatti’s characters, “Mr and Mrs X”) or have them bleeped off screen (that’s Evans, thereafter dubbed “Harvard Hottie”). Don’t ask me if this is to protect the innocent or a way of fessing up to the roles’ obvious one-dimensionality, but, either way, it’s annoying. So’s the framing gimmick with a supposed cross-section of New Yorkers frozen in street tableaux at the Natural History Museum, their genera stencilled on as “Park Slope Lawyer”, “Central Park Bag Lady” and whathaveyou. The movie’s pretensions to anthropological commentary aren’t just glib and childish but a criminally lazy excuse for wall-to-wall stereotyping – if Alicia Keys’s character were among the exhibits, for instance, I can’t imagine what label they’d find for her except “Standard-Issue Black Best Friend”. Annie’s fantasies of floating above the Manhattan skyline, a red umbrella in hand, tip the wink oh-so-knowingly to the doyenne of film nannies, but you’d need a whole crateload of sugar to help this medicine go down. It’s supercalifragilisticexpialatrocious. F