Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.
— Franz Boas, Foreward to Coming of Age in Samoa
Newly graduated from college, Annie (Scarlett Johansson) wants to change the world — or maybe just observe it. An aspiring anthropologist, she’s fascinated by rituals, reads Margaret Mead, and studies the dioramas at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. At the start of The Nanny Diaries, these dioramas take on an odious cast, displaying the “bizarre social patterns” of unspeakably self-absorbed Upper East Siders, especially those dependent on “child-rearing communities,” that is, nannies.
The opening sequence — in which she describes the objects of her study over examples in faux dioramas — suggests Annie is possessed of a certain disdain. Annie doesn’t only observe her “others,” she also judges them, this evident in the so-called “field diary” she reads as narration, combined with the diorama displays of, say, shopping and “feeding” rituals (a woman with her head in a toilet). The truth is, Annie’s afraid she won’t live up to her single mother Judy’s (Donna Murphy) expectations (“Maybe I’m not CEO material”), a likelihood revealed in her interview with Goldman Sachs. Asked to describe who she “is,” Annie, trussed up in the suit her mother has given her for graduation, smiles, gasps, then falls apart. “I have absolutely no idea,” she sputters, rushing out the door as the woman inside rips her resume in half.
It’s dramatic and trite, and afterwards Annie makes her way to Central Park to ponder her options as they appear to her: perhaps she could be a bag lady. Instead, she seeks the comfort of convention, when she meets the nanny-needing Mrs. X (Laura Linney) by chance and survives an interview over lunch at Bergdorf’s. To move in to the city and, in her mind, become a second coming of Mary Poppins (complete with flying umbrella and sense of mission, for, as Annie says, “Everything I knew about nannying came from the movies”), Annie lies to her mother, saying she’s got the finance firm job. (The movie explains Judy’s eagerness concerning her daughter’s career by making her a hardworking nurse, working extra shifts to put her daughter through school, and of course, a professional caregiver.)
Because the movie can’t make her a complete conniver, Annie is more honest with her best friend Lynette (Alicia Keys), in part because Lynette is giving her a ride into Manhattan. Lynette, on her way to grad school, pronounces it strange that Annie would want to be a “domestic,” as Lynette’s own mother was for years: it’s not a job you take by choice, worries Lynette. It’s a job that redefines you, in terms of class, self-confidence, and identity. Annie can’t imagine this, being white and mostly privileged, and above all, convinced that her “field diary” sets her apart from the Xes and their ilk. When Lynette drops her off, Annie’s singing along with George Michael’s “Freedom,” again making too clear and too cute her fantasy, that she is free from her past and delivered into a posh new future.
She soon finds that Lynette is right: nannies work hard. Dreams of designer shoes and bubble baths during the day give way to sleeping in a teeny room next to the washing machine, picking up Mr. X’s (Paul Giamatti) dry cleaning, and fetching her four-year-old charge, Grayer (Nicholas Art), from school each afternoon. After a couple of days on the job, she’s calling Lynette to complain that Mrs. X is selfish, uptight, and neglecting Grayer.
Of course, Annie soon realizes that her reading is simplistic, that she’s condemning Mrs. X unfairly, and that, in fact, being rich is also sort of hard work, especially if you’re a woman (Mr. X is about as stereotypical as he can be, away at work, disrespecting Grayer, having a lazy affair with a coworker). Trying to maintain her front of perfect confidence and coordination, Mrs. X is driven to unspeakable meanness, selfishness, and condescension. At a Fourth of July party, nannies are forced into costumes chosen by their employers: Annie is Betsy Ross to Grayer’s George Washington, and, in the film’s sharpest sight gag, a four-year-old in a George W. Bush mask rides on the hip of a nanny dressed as Condi Rice.
It’s a throwaway, but makes the point that nannies, like many other women, do as they’re told. At the Nanny Conflict Resolution Seminar Mrs. X insists they attend, the mothers discuss their “problems,” leaving their employees — as always — tending to the kids in the next room. But while the movie acknowledges that Annie is only one of many types of nannies — a Jamaican woman is trying to make enough money to bring her own son to the States, an Irish woman has stretched this “temporary” gig into years — she is the one who speaks up at the meeting (earning Mrs. X’s wrath), and the one who’s narrating: her point of view is yours, more or less.
Still, Annie’s moral high ground is at least a little shaky. It’s not that she encourages Grayer to keep mum about “Break the Rules Day” (they ride the subway to the West Side), but more that she’s deluding herself about knowing so much. This too is framed in an all too familiar way, as she discovers her skewed perspective by interacting with a wise and hunky love interest, a flirtatious young man she deems Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans, keeping his shirt on), who just happens to live upstairs from the Xes.
This romance seems irrelevant to the relationships with Grayer and Mrs. X, until you see that Annie, much like her employer, is expected (and expecting) to live out a cultural ideal. Her ordeal among the aliens will lead her at last to genuine righteousness, her judgments deemed sound when she finally recognizes the importance of true love in a romantic comedy. With Mrs. X so disempowered and desperate, the film turns into a slightly dialed down version of The Devil Wears Prada, a book Annie appears reading late in the film (to ensure that you’re aware that the film is aware of its own borrowings and targets).
Sadly, The Nanny Diaries‘ focus on beleaguered women doesn’t lead to any sense of “freedom.” “I don’t think that having money makes it any easier,” Annie opines at last. Translation for her purposes: women contend with the facts that, while “Male monogamy remains an elusive and much mythologized trait,” women, rich or not, still need to take care of their kids.