The husband-and-wife directing team of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman were responsible for one of the best American indies of recent years, the cockeyed comic-book biopic American Splendor. In that movie, they managed to turn misanthropy and cynicism into the stuff of fairytale romance. So in a way, it's strangely fitting that in their latest feature, a big-budget adaptation of the chick-lit hit The Nanny Diaries, they end up turning a slick, middlebrow fairytale into a sour, curdled study of two distinctly unhappy lives.
This year's Devil Wears Prada it's not. There's a reason the film's release was pushed from late spring to early fall: Despite a schizophrenically bouncy pop soundtrack and some slick daydream-fantasy sequences, Diaries isn't the escapist fun it so desperately wants to be. There's no real pleasure to be had in watching two aimless, unhappy women act out their insecurities on each other, unless you're an unemployed therapist looking for a couple of new patients. Somewhere along the way, the movie knots itself up into a tight ball of resentment and passive-aggressive anger and never lets up, not even in its would-be cathartic finale.
The performers give it their best shot, though, and for a while, Diaries is a notch above the usual Dakota Fanning-Britney Murphy chick-flick fare. Working with Woody Allen seems to have encouraged Scarlett Johansson to drop her usually morose twentysomething routine: As the put-upon Upper East Side nanny Annie, she proves adept at physical comedy (stroller pratfalls, kid-puke jokes), contorting her face into an array of animated, pained expressions. The movie needs as much sweetness and light as it can get, considering that the queen bitch here is comic-book villainous: Mrs. X, as played by the razor-sharp Laura Linney, is a shrill, lacquered trophy wife with too much time on her hands and not nearly enough people to blame for it.
There are moments of pathetic servitude that truly sting: When one of Mr. X's mistresses leaves lingerie lying around the apartment, Annie pretends it's hers, and when she tries to commiserate with the other, more overworked immigrant nannies in the neighborhood, they immediately put her in her place. For Annie, nannydom is a diversion; for them, it's a way of life. Scenes like these almost rescue Diaries from the stink of white, middle-class privilege, but before long, you start to wonder why the girl doesn't just take advantage of her relatively comfortable situation and quit: There's nothing at stake that would make her need this job.
It doesn't help that the film's climax is a massive nonconfrontation, in which the heroine and the wicked witch aren't even in the same room together. Pulcini and Berman are obviously talented they find countless ways to visualize some of the novel's most tepid prose but for all their newfound, big-budget trickery, they can't hide that they're working on material that's beneath them.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].