Horrible, horrible women are everywhere, just waiting for other women — lucky, lucky women — to exact revenge on their former employers by writing modern urban fairy tales about them. (Men do it, too, of course.) Sometimes these Manhattan-set acts of wish fulfillment are wished right onto the screen, as was the case with "The Devil Wears Prada," one of the nicest schlock-elevating improvements from page to film since "The Bridges of Madison County."
Now, very much in the "Prada" vein, we have "The Nanny Diaries." Like last summer's hit, it boasts a blue-chip cast, including Scarlett Johansson as the reluctant, much-abused nanny to the unpleasant preteen son of an Upper East Side Manhattan gorgon, played by Laura Linney. Paul Giamatti, wittily hidden from full view in his early, distracted appearances, is Mr. X, who is a scoundrel and a bad dad and worse husband. You notice the fact that Giamatti's heard well before he's seen, because it's a clever idea. And the film hasn't many of those.
The casting is all fine; everything else is pushy and out of joint. The team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini co-directed and adapted the catty best seller by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Berman and Pulcini name their heroine Annie Braddock and play her up as a working-class Jane. (Something about Johansson and her aura of self-regard, frequently at odds with her talent, means she has to work at this "just plain folk" thing a little.)
In the movie version, the nanny is a relentless fabricator, lying to her Jersey mother (Donna Murphy, an excellent Broadway alum) about her new job from the get-go. Big mistake. The story didn't need this extra source of "tension" and "conflict." It makes the central character seem seriously whacked, and because the film's comic tone wavers between gross caricature and pathos, the comic possibilities of the deception are lost.
The film wants it both ways with its jewel-encrusted milieu, as have so many great and mediocre class-warfare comedies in decades past. Annie lives a double existence, hanging with her pal and sounding board (Alicia Keys) downtown when she's not running around uptown from shopping excursion to insufferable play date to mime-ridden birthday party. Chris Evans plays a character known only as Harvard Hottie, who lives just across the way from the unhappy X clan. That's how it goes with the chick-lit genre: There's usually a dreamboat down the hall or thereabouts.
The bitter joke of "The Nanny Diaries," its initial selling point upon its publication five years ago, was simple: See how pathetic and self-absorbed these miserable creatures are. Money can't buy you love. Back in Philip Barry's day, a play such as "Holiday" (1928) could simultaneously deride and covet Old Money hypocrisies, and make it all terribly charming and a tiny bit truthful. The original authors of "The Nanny Diaries" may have been nanny-savvy and alert to a telling detail or two, but witty they weren't. No characters to remember here; only archetypes to exploit. While I greatly admired "American Splendor," the Harvey Pekar biography starring Giamatti that was co-directed by Berman and Pulcini, in "The Nanny Diaries" the adapter-directors' observational skills run smack into the cottage cheese of the source material.
They should've thrown everything away except the title and the outline. That's what the "Devil Wears Prada" creative team did, and that film turned out a lot richer than this one.