I realize most books require a LOT of adapting to work as movies, but Emma Laughlin & Nicola Kraus's biting, insightful "Nanny Diaries" was a slim book, with a straightforward story line -- we aren't talking "Gravity's Rainbow" here. It was sharp and gossipy, amusing in a clear-eyed, first-hand-knowledge sort of way (both authors worked as nannies in NYC before writing the book).
None of that makes it to the film, which changes the plot & characters so completely that it might as well be a different story with an entirely different title. In the novel, NAN (presumably short for Nancy) becomes a PART-TIME nanny while she's finishing a graduate degree -- she's not a live-in. The point of the book is that the ridiculous demands of Mrs. X encroach on her life to the point that a poorly paying part-time babysitting gig eventually takes over her far more real needs to finish school and get a real job. She is NOT an anthropologist trying to get a job on Wall Street (why would an anthropology major be trying for a financial job anyways?)
NAN in the book is herself from an old-money New York family -- not a Jersey girl! I guess the filmmakers decided it would make the character "more sympathetic", but it skewers the whole point of the story. In the book, NAN's parents and even grandparents are entirely aware of her part-time babysitting gig -- it's no secret, and it's no more "degrading" than someone who works at the Gap while trying to finish college.
Far from "great paying", one big point the book makes is that the very rich are awful cheapskates when it comes to their "servants". The sharpest detail of the novel is when Nan leaves the summer cottage, and Mrs. X has only paid her $50 for a whole week of 24/7 work -- because, after all, wasn't it a "free beach vacation"?
Scarlett Johannson continues to underwhelm me -- she's very miscast as "Annie" and doesn't look or sound like a Jersey girl. The production has her dressed down, with stringy brown hair and frumpy clothes -- stripped of her beauty, we have to confront her limited acting skills (like not being able to mimic a New Jersey accent). It's painful. The character of NAN called for an actress with a Yuppie, upper class vibe -- in some ways, she's a younger version of Mrs. X and both characters know this .... i.e., if she marries Harvard Hottie, she'll become the next generation Mrs. X. Both the film & actress seem oblivious to this brilliant concept, and instead labor to make this "Upstairs, Downstairs -- which it emphatically is NOT.
The usually wonderful Laura Linney tries hard, but is wasted in a part dumb-ed down to that of a Stepford wife -- not mention, she's dressed and coiffed as if it were 1962, not 2007. (In the book, Mrs. X exudes "casual chic", like plain ballet flats that cost $600.)
The stunningly beautiful Alicia Keyes has a small part, but despite a lovely husky voice she has no real ability to carry even a small supporting role -- and the cliché of the "black best girlfriend" is painful. Donna Murphy has a thankless role as the controlling Jersey mom -- a working class nurse who is "horrified" to see her college age daughter doing child care, a distinction that makes no sense (who watched Annie while her single mom was working as a nurse? duh!). This is a tired cliché, and doesn't exist in the novel.
Unable to see clever, sharply observed social critique in the novel (do the filmmakers have their own "nanny issues"?), the film relies on prolonged, uncharming fantasy sequences ala "Mean Girls" (i.e., treating the subject matter as if it's an anthropological study, etc.). It's not a surprise that this film was held back from release for a long while (probably reworked a lot, to no good effect).
SPOILER ALERT: In the novel, Mr. X is cheating on Mrs. X -- and we learn that SHE stole HIM away from his first wife in the exact same way. In order to hang on to him, she does indeed get pregnant -- it's not a hoax. She doesn't divorce him, she doesn't "reform", and every indication is that poor neglected Grayer will grow up to be exactly like his selfish dad. NAN graduates and presumably gets a "real" (non-nanny) job. But there is no apologetic letter from Mrs. X to her -- the point of the novel is that the X's have learned nothing and will continue on with their horrible ways, oblivious to their son and (presumably) their next baby.
This film needed to be a sharp, humorous, black comedy of manners and instead, its a flabby, un-funny mess that suffocates every potentially amusing scene and strains for sentiment where none exists. Even the chance to show the "posh lifestyles of the rich" is lazy and unimaginative.
In conclusion: not even worth a rental