Manhattan Mayhem

A strong cast elevates 'The Nanny Diaries' above the usual end-of-summer dreck

Here we are, staring down the end of summer. It's a time when the temperatures start to diminish, the kids go back to school and the pools get covered up.

To us, the sad movie critics, it is known as the time when bad things happen at the movies. Very, very bad things.

The end of August through September is generally known as the time when studios take a dump on the unknowing public, expelling all of the garbage heaps that have been either delayed due to creative problems or held up because they stink. The Nanny Diaries, an adaptation of the popular novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, has been delayed for quite some time, and--wouldn't you know it--it's getting released in late August. It's being smacked around by a majority of critics, who save their best barbs for this time of year.

Here's the kicker ... it's actually pretty good, in large part due to the excellent cast assembled by directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who made the excellent American Splendor). While this picture didn't blow me away, I was mildly entertained for the entire time--which is pretty good for a late-August cinematic dump.

Scarlett Johansson, who I personally wish would stay the hell away from Woody Allen, plays Annie, an aspiring anthropologist. She wants to study bones and cultures and whatnot, but her mom (Donna Murphy) wants her to be a businesswoman. After a chance encounter with one Mrs. X (a devilish Laura Linney) in New York's Central Park, she lands a job as Mrs. X's nanny. She keeps this a secret from Mom and moves into Mrs. X's plush residence.

Mrs. X, as it turns out, is a satanic boss with a jackass husband (Paul Giamatti) who cheats on her and displays zero parenting skills. Her son, Grayer (good work from little Nicholas Art), is a holy terror, thanks to the ever-changing nannies and always-absent parents, so Annie has her work cut out for her. She's also not allowed to have a boyfriend, rarely gets a day off and is stowed away in a closet-size room next to the washing machine.

Of course, the film has a forbidden romance, after neighbor Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans) catches Annie with her pants down--yes, you get to see Johansson's butt in pink undies. And, yes, many of the characters in the film have jokey, generalized names. Evans continues to impress after his excellent work in this summer's Sunshine. He's a decent actor despite his deplorable work in the Fantastic Four films.

The movie has plenty going for it. Johansson and Art have some cute scenes together, while Johansson and Linney are quite masterful when they square off. In a small role, Alicia Keyes is impressive as Annie's best friend. Giamatti plays one of the more hateful, unforgivably immoral characters you will see in a film this year.

I suppose one of the things grating on the critics is that the film isn't very funny. It has its humorous moments, but it's actually quite dark and a little depressing for stretches. There's little fun at the X household (Linney and Giamatti have some epic quarrels), and the directors don't try to sugarcoat the battles.

The film has a few visually arresting moments. Annie's umbrella flight over Manhattan is a nice ode to Mary Poppins. There's also a clever opening where factions of Manhattan society are encased in museum displays while they are described.

The film's faults lie in its typical stereotyping of wealthy wives and their philandering husbands. Granted, the performers do a good job with the material, but little of it is surprising. The film basically does a good job of presenting mediocrity.

The Nanny Diaries won't win any awards, and it shouldn't. It is merely a good film, and not a great one. Johansson, Linney and Giamatti do good work, and that's a pretty decent pedigree for any film, even if it is rather average.

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