A field study of the rich

January 25, 2008

THE NANNY Diaries, recently released on DVD, tells the story of Annie Braddock, a fresh-out-of-college woman who is unsure of what direction to go in her life. Annie's mother, a nurse who has worked hard to put Annie through college, pushes her to take a financially secure job in business.

Annie resists the business world but is unsure of pursuing her dream of becoming an anthropologist and chooses instead to take a job as a nanny for a rich Upper East Side family. The Nanny Diaries is filled with many pleasant surprises, the most important being that it's a Hollywood comedy that's actually funny.

Annie tells the story of her experiences as nanny from the vantage point of an anthropologist doing a field study of the Upper East Side elite. At the very top of the family unit is the white, male adult who is mostly found to be guzzling expensive Scotch, yelling into his cell phone or looking for a lap dance. Next is the white, female adult tasked with a life of full-time Swedish massages, aromatherapy sessions and Pilates classes punctuated by manic moments of bulimia and power shopping.

Review: Movies

The Nanny Diaries, written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, starring Scarlett Johansson.

At the base of this family structure are the nannies, a multiracial assortment of immigrants and poor working mothers tasked with the job of raising someone else's child so they can feed their own. The portrayal of the other nannies is one of the best features of the film. The women are portrayed sympathetically without being patronizing.

Annie and the other nannies do their share of eye-rolling at the absurd lifestyles of their rich bosses, but the movie is also clear to point out the degrading cruelty and oppressiveness of their jobs. In one scene, the nannies are asked to "speak their mind" at a conflict resolution seminar meant to foster better communication between the rich mothers and nannies.

The wealthy wives complain "they don't even speak English." The nannies stand, stone-faced in order to avoid retribution when they go home. The middle-class mediator smiles and urges the nannies to speak up "Come on, let us know what you think...por favor." Annie gives the mother and father the names Mr. And Mrs. X since they are part of her field study and their anonymity must be maintained, but this device also has the effect of making the point that Annie's poor treatment isn't a peculiarity but the norm.

One of the best parts of the movie is the role played by Mrs. X (played by Laura Linney). Throughout the movie, Mrs. X is portrayed as self-indulgent and abusive, but Linney also is able to make us feel some sympathy for this woman, who is trapped within the sterile existence of a loveless marriage to a cold, adulterous husband. The Nanny Diaries paints a clearly negative picture of "life at the top as viewed from the bottom" but it acknowledges how sexism shapes the alienation and cruelty displayed by women like Mrs. X.

The Nanny Diaries does have some problems. The movie has a silly romance between Annie and her handsome dreamboat she calls "Harvard Hottie," who is a rich, pampered jerk. The only thing good about the relationship is a scene where Annie verbally slams Hottie's wealthy, frat-boy friends who happen to be bigger jerks then he is.

Annie says in the beginning of her study "I am not an objective observer," and it's true. She takes a side in this movie. It's our side. That alone makes The Nanny Diaries worth watching.

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