Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Nanny Diaries

On a recent trip to a bookstore I noticed a lot of "diary" books in the summer reading display. The genre implies that the reader will learn the inside dirt on the book's topic from the author. In this respect The Nanny Diaries does not disappoint. The self-deception and personal failings of ultra-rich families who inhabit the Upper East Side of Manhattan are told, as if from an anthropologist's journal, by a bright young college graduate, Annie (Scarlett Johanssen), from the Jersey side of the Hudson River.
Annie took the lowly job of nanny to buy time to find herself before entering the staid business world. Her major in finance and minor in anthropology are symbolic of this conflicted young woman whose intellectual bent is at war with the path to financial success which her single mother (Donna Murphy) wants for her. This crisis comes to a head when, at her second interview at Goldman Sachs, she is asked, "Tell me who Annie is," setting off an identity crisis. Some of us got to bum around Europe for a year to figure this out, but Annie decides to make the journey of self-discovery in secret, lying to her mother about what she is doing for a living in Manhattan.
As an outsider to her employer's extravagant lifestyle, she is at first intimidated by the impeccably-coiffed denizen of Bergdorf Goodman, whom she calls Mrs X (Laura Linney). The glamour of the Park Avenue lifestyle dims, however, when she is confronted with the infidelity of Mr X (Paul Giamatti) and Mrs X's tacit acceptance. Annie finds herself becoming entangled in Mrs X's heartache. As she wins the trust of her four-year-old charge, Grayer, (Nicholas Reese Art) and feels the pain of his isolation from his parents, she finds herself breaking the cardinal rule of nannies, telling him that she loves him.
Annie tries to explain to her disapproving friend, Lynette (Alicia Keys), that she can't leave this family because they will fall apart emotionally. Annie puts her personal life on hold, in a move reminiscent of Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. Even though she is strongly attracted to the Harvard "hottie" (as they insist on calling him) from upstairs, she resists his advances for fear she would lose her job, which has become an obsession.
This movie has value as a commentary on the futility of meeting the shallow expectations of the upper class, or that part of it which sees motherhood as something delegated to the staff and puts inordinate pressure on children to perform intellectually while yet in pre-school. Grayer's rejection from the waitlist at the "right" private school sets off a crisis for his parents. His emotional needs are sidelined, thus he learns to gain his parents' attention through misbehavior. The movie also touches upon the poignant situation of many immigrant nannies, raising other women's children while their own children, back in their homeland, grow up without them. The anthropological theme of the movie caused me a bit of soul-searching as I left the theatre -- always a sign of a good film.
Charming as the Harvard heart-throb, Chris Evans overlooks his social advantage over Annie, and her initial rebuffs, to start what promises to be a long-term relationship. Their immediate sexual involvement was disappointing to a mother of three young women who is trying to explain that, in the real world, sexual involvement before marriage more often leads to loneliness than lasting relationships. This aspect falls below the level of the perceptive social commentary of The Nanny Diaries into formulaic Hollywood love interest, typified by a crude scene with partial nudity. Perhaps the producers, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, think that the young women in the audience have come to expect a sexual relationship in romantic comedies. I found it a distraction in an otherwise satisfying night out.
The PG-13 rating is earned by some cursing, one scene with partial undress, an unwanted sexual advance and two overheated (clothed) love scenes. I recommend it for adults or mother-teenage daughter outings where discussion of the flawed portrayal of relationships can serve as a teachable moment. The only man seen in the theatre was sound asleep when the movie ended.
Cross-posted at MercatorNet.

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