No actress does brittle quite like Laura Linney, who specializes in playing composed, professional women who are just a hammer's tap away from shattering into a million pieces. At her best, in films like You Can Count On Me and The Squid And The Whale, Linney has proven equally adept at spinning her piano-wire intensity into sharp comedy and heartbreaking pathos, sometimes in the space of a single scene. Without her presence as a snooty Upper East Side mother in The Nanny Diaries—a crisp, though conventional, adaptation of Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus' popular novel—the film might have been little more than a collection of broad comic stereotypes and family-values sentiment. But with her, the film receives some badly needed dimension to its thin satire, not to mention the lion's share of the laughs.
In spite of Woody Allen's seal of approval, Scarlett Johansson isn't nearly so adept a comedienne, but she's appealing enough as a college graduate who takes a nanny job as a desperate sort of stalling tactic. Oblivious to Johansson's inexperience as a caregiver—the not-so-hidden subtext is that she's prized for being white and speaking English—Linney cajoles her into taking up residence in Linney's palatial Upper East Side apartment and looking after her bratty son (Nicholas Art). Johansson soon discovers that she's in way over her head: The boy is needy and obstinate, Linney's forbidding list of rules and dietary requirements is impossible to follow, and Johansson's services are required 24 hours a day, no matter what the schedule dictates. And once she finally breaks through and bonds with the kid, quitting becomes less of an option.
Taking the form of an anthropological study, The Nanny Diaries works best when it picks apart the absentee parenting of New York's elite, with fathers committed to mistresses and the links, while their jobless wives shuffle off the day-to-day child-rearing duties onto other women. Though it has little in common with their previous film, American Splendor, writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini summon enough Harvey Pekar-like misanthropy to flambé an admittedly easy target. They're less certain when trying to push across a bland romantic subplot involving grown-up rich boy Chris Evans, which could have been excised completely without anyone being the wiser. But the film belongs to Linney, whose caustic putdowns and status-seeking veneer barely hides her genuine hurt over her husband's philandering and her distant relationship to her own child. No doubt her diaries would be more compelling than the nanny's.