HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 10, 2007
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The Nanny Diaries

John Turner


The reviews were so scathing of The Nanny Diaries I don't know why I went to see it. I've always liked Laura Linney in any film I've seen her in, and Scarlett Johansson has been in good movies also. And I tend to be drawn to stories dealing with affluent New York apartment dwellers; I like to see what the apartments look like. So maybe those were sufficient reasons.

I began to feel a bit strange while waiting for the movie to start. I was the only non-woman in the theatre until just before the usher shut the doors when a guy came in with his wife, looking disgruntled. He didn't actually make me feel any better.

Maybe I shouldn't admit it, but I enjoyed the film. True, everything the reviewers had disparaged was there, glaring at me. The anthropological motif was silly. The social context was exaggerated. More was made of situations than they deserved. Even so, the story held my interest and I thought the acting was quite good, even Ms. Johansson's, which several critics savaged.

I assume -- and certainly hope -- that the behavior of the wealthy denizens of New York's Upper East Side was a caricature. But the thing about caricatures is they have to have elements of validity or else they don't work at all. I've seen enough social reports and even had some personal experiences to convince me that the virtually insane self-absorption depicted in the film are not totally divorced from reality. The lengths parents of privilege will go to cram their children into what they consider advantageous environments have been documented thoroughly. They actually are unbalanced, and they have virtually no critical insight about their own attitudes or supposed values.

Upon reflection, I see that the love story was not enthralling. But in the midst of the film, serving as a contrast to the stifling life our nanny heroine had to endure, it was at least serviceable.

The bond that developed between the nanny and her charge was supposed to be heartening, and I guess it was, though the little boy's transition from devil to angel was more sudden than life allows. Still, you have to keep in mind that this was a movie and so there was not sufficient time for incremental changes.

The film's most subtle point was that the nanny's mother, a down-to-earth nurse who had labored mightily to get her daughter through a prestigious college, herself exhibited values that weren't a lot different from those of the neurotic socialite mistress played by Laura Linney. In the end, both women came to their senses and that was unrealistic. Yet it offered a certain melodramatic satisfaction.

The apartment was both scrumptious and sterile, and thus served as a realistic symbol for the lives that were worked out in its confines.

The Nanny Diaries has been compared incessantly to The Devil Wore Prada.  I agree it wasn't as good as the peep into the high-fashion world. The latter hewed closer to reality and had Meryl Streep. She's always hard to compete with. But if there is a contest between her and Laura Linney, I don't think it's a blowout. So if you find yourself on a hot afternoon, wanting both dark and air-conditioning, The Nanny Diaries wouldn't be a crazy decision.


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