Report on alien culture of New York privilege is no ‘Devil Wears Prada’

2008-04-14 00:00

Film Review | The Nanny Diaries | CineCentre | Rating: ***

LIKE The Devil Wears Prada, this is another film about a poor college graduate getting a job she considers beneath her, and then making fun of the people in that world before using the experience to go on to better things.

The film is presented as an anthropologist’s “field diary” — an outsider reporting on a specific and alien culture.

Scarlett Johannson is Annie Braddick, a New Jersey girl who has graduated after considerable sacrifice by her mother, but who feels too unsure of herself to go after a corporate job in New York. By chance she is offered a job as a nanny to an Upper East Side child.

The grim, youngish mother “Mrs X” (Laura Linney) has only employed her because she can’t be bothered to raise her own child, and because it is a necessary status symbol to have a nanny.

The hard-edged mother is lampooned, as is the whole idea of having a nanny, but the film cannot help making the child himself sweet, and Annie, although she loathes the job, won’t quit because she feels for the kid.

So she undermines the mother’s ridiculous child-rearing rules (no naps, haute cuisine or tofu to eat, French conversation) and makes friends with the little boy, feeding him that American childhood staple, peanut-butter-and-jelly, out of a jar.

The Devil Wears Prada worked, despite the somewhat whining air of the main character, because Meryl Streep created the character of the employer with such relish, and then gave her vulnerability such poignance. The Nanny Diaries tries for the same tone, but can’t quite pull it off, because the child introduces a soft centre to the story that can’t be made fun of.

As with Prada, the weak point is the character of the put-upon employee. Johannson’s bruised sweetness is held up as better than the mother’s drive, but what is behind the mother’s compulsions? Why is the callow young woman more deserving of our interest than the woman whose unhappy marriage has seen her displace her personality on to shopping?

Annie goes on to her destiny, using her time as “Nanny” to get a place studying anthropology at graduate school, having scored “Harvard Hottie”, the upper class boy who lives in the building, as a bonus. How neat. The mostly female audience on Saturday found parts of this film amusing, but it won’t linger long in the mind.

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