'Nanny Diaries': A Position in Need of a Headhunter

Laura Linney (left, with Nicholas Art and Scarlett Johansson) floats this sinker.
Laura Linney (left, with Nicholas Art and Scarlett Johansson) floats this sinker. (By K.c. Bailey -- The Weinstein Company)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2007

Love me or hate me, you must agree with me on one thing as immutable as the laws of physics (or else I will beat you up): Laura Linney is a great actress.

In "The Nanny Diaries," the sublime Linney takes the most reprehensible of icons, the snooty, privileged, controlling Upper East Side rhymes-with-rich, and delivers a masterpiece of Cruella De Vil-level toxin as the Park Avenue hostess with the leastest, Mrs. X. She becomes the woman you love to hate. But -- this is the greatness of Linney -- she also gives you a glimpse of the forces that crushed her into such monstrous certitude. It's funny, it's sad, it's real.

Too bad, alas, the rest of the movie isn't. The unsinkable Linney -- and this has happened too much to her -- is once again the best thing in the movie and manages to keep it afloat. Too bad she didn't sail on the Titanic that fateful April evening. Derived from a best-selling novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, it tells a fish-out-of-water story in which its heroine, Annie Braddock, a bright New Jersey college grad (Scarlett Johansson, possibly out of her depth), stumbles into a job as a nanny for the rich socialite's son. No surprise, she finds the work demeaning, degrading, endless, annoying and crushing, and feels herself especially crushed by the iron whimsy of Mrs. X, even as she develops a countervailing powerful affection for her young charge, Grayer.

The gimmick is pale: She's by training an anthropologist, so the movie is structured as "field notes" on a "tribe" as astounding as the New Zealand Maori or South African Xhosa. Her observations about Upper East Siders and their proclivities for designer shoes, martinis, adultery, child neglect, nannies and ugly, too-damned-bright summer clothes mean to give the film a waspish, snippy attitude.

But it just doesn't quite work. The quality of observation is somewhat off: For example, the movie shows a HarvardPrincetonYale "typical" mogul type in a mock museum diorama screaming orders to his broker over the phone, but if you look carefully, the guy has clip-on suspenders. Clip-ons! Good God, it's so hard to get quality help these days! This is like Abe Lincoln wearing a fedora.

Anyhow, a couple of subplots intrude on the far more interesting Linney-Johansson relationship. One is the dynamic represented by Mr. X, a slimy Wall Streeter played (eventually, after a pointless who-can-it-be charade engineered by directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) by Paul Giamatti as a toad crossed with a slug. He's obsessive, withdrawn, unsupportive and a player in the worst possible meaning of that word, and of course you know it's only a few reels before he starts hitting on Johansson's clueless Annie.

Then there's Annie's infatuation with "Harvard Hottie" (as per anthropology protocols, the characters are given symbolic pseudonyms), played by handsome, WASPy Chris Evans, last seen blazing through the air as Johnny Storm in the generally dim "Fantastic Four" franchise.

A thing Johansson may share with many of the summer interns clotting Washington: They really seem to be much happier among kids their own age. Thus, she's easily overwhelmed into assuming a whiter shade of pale by the brilliant Linney, but comes alive in a mischievous and interesting way when alone with Evans or with Nicholas Art, the delightful kid who plays young Grayer. I almost wish the movie had been about a Jersey girl and an Upper East Side Harvard crew athlete, and would turn on their mutual discovery that she was not in Springsteen's band and he was not a snob. These two could do it. (And it's also nice to see the extremely personable Evans without a penumbra of flame encapsulating him as he flies along.)

But that's not the movie they made. They made a movie about a nanny much abused by her mistress, though she (the nanny) is flawless (a flaw in the film), saving the son's spirits and then health, keeping the schedule going, subtly supporting her blackhearted boss's delusions even when they're clearly absurd, and generally achieving sainthood in 15 minutes shy of two hours.

Yet it doesn't send you out on the high you expect. You've watched this poor if noble young woman take it on the chin, arms, legs, skull, and so forth for all that time, and it all seems a prelude for the main event. You want to see the worm turn, bark, then bite, then open fire, then call in tactical air support and finally go full-theater nuclear. You want to see Armageddon visited upon the transgressor. Or at least something spilled on her silk Pucci sheath. That's the transaction that must close the film.

But the film doesn't quite deliver that. The ensuing scene is diluted and filtered by a variety of circumstances: It's not a full frontal, complete with salvos of saliva and the gush of tears.

It ends not with a bang but with a mutter.

The Nanny Diaries (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company