There’s something you need to know about The Nanny Diaries right off the bat. It’s not a comedy. I know, you’ve seen the film’s cutesy poster with Scarlett Johansson in a potentially comedic position next to her “awww” inspiring little ward; and you’ve seen the commercials with their lighthearted, potentially funny music and awkward situations. This is not that movie. There is not a single laugh anywhere in it, and if there’s supposed to be then the film does an awful job of delivering. No, there’s nothing funny about The Nanny Diaries and I’m going to go ahead here and give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming that, advertising to the contrary, there’s not supposed to be.
Instead The Nanny Diaries has more in common with last year’s Oscar contender Little Children than it does with any kind of rom-com, minus of course the pedophile. In much the same way that Little Children was narrated by an omniscient voice delivering pithy, distant observations; Johansson narrates The Nanny Diaries as if she’s reading a diary she’s written from the perspective of an anthropologist in the middle of a grand social experiment.
Except it isn’t a social experiment or anything nearly so noble. Johansson plays Annie Braddock, a recent college grad who falls into nannying because she’s afraid to live in the real world and most of all, afraid to tell her mother that she doesn’t want to become a boring, corporate muckity-muck. Annie Braddock is afraid of her own life, and though when she moves out of her Mom’s place and into the city she seems to exalt in the freedom that comes with not being at home, she turns right around and throws herself into a situation with even less freedom by becoming a live-in Nanny for a rich, self-absorbed, absent mother who treats her as if she’s a personal slave. Nanny Annie narrates a lot about how much she’s bothered by the way she’s treated, but while her narration protests she simply stands around and takes it, muttering platitudes and “yes maam’s” as if she’s a dog who’s been beaten.
To me, that’s the biggest problem with The Nanny Diaries. It’s hard to watch Annie without dismissing her as simply weak or cowardly. She’s not a bad person, but she’s an empty vessel who seems willing to be pushed and prodded in whatever direction her overbearing employers/slave masters want her to go, while making excuses for her own complicity in their awful behavior as parents. For most of the movie she’s not motivated to do anything or become anything. She barely has a personality. Annie’s employer Mrs. X thrusts her into the role of societal inferior and she accepts it gladly, bumbling around at doing what she’s told, only breaking out of her meek servitude when she’s forced to by circumstances beyond her control.
I guess I’m saying that I don’t know what The Nanny Diaries is about. If it’s about Annie, well that’s a problem since she’s not interesting enough to serve as the focus for this, or any other movie. If it’s about the selfish, wealthy, bad parents of high-society; then my answer is: who cares. Personally, I think The Nanny Diaries is all about trying to be cute, and anything else that happens in it is merely ancillary. It succeeds at that. The film is frequently cute because even at her worst Scarlett Johansson is pretty cute and so is the kid she’s stuck paling around with. Sadly, the movie doesn’t manage much else. Its message, if there is one, is muddled and even with all the heavy handed narration to tell us what we’re supposed to be thinking, it’s hard to figure out why we’re supposed to want to be watching. Still, the film isn’t entirely unentertaining. For at least some of its running time it’ll keep your attention while you try to figure out where it goes. At worst, Scarlett Johansson is fun to look at, even if she doesn’t seem to know what to do with this flaccid character. But Annie’s resolution is unsatisfying and feels tacked on, while the trip to get there is even less than the sum of the film as whole.