Friday, August 24, 2007

Scarlett Johansson plays "Who's Your Nanny?"

Summary: "The Nanny Diaries" virtually defines middle-of-the-road moviemaking. It sinks to no depths, scales few heights and has the look and feel of an entertainment that's designed to do little more than pass a couple of hours.

Directors Shari Spring Berman and Robert Pulcini made a big splash in 2003 with "American Splendor," the story of Harvey Pekar, Cleveland comic-book author and massive malcontent. If you saw that movie, you won't be surprised to learn that Berman and Pulcini try to add some stylistic dash to a straightforward story about a confused Jersey girl who winds up taking a job as a nanny in hopes that she'll eventually discover her destiny. Faux dioramas and the occasional freeze frame can't, however, disguise the movie's middle-of-the-road sensibility.

Based on a satirical novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, "Nanny Diaries" tells the story of Annie (Scarlett Johansson), a recent college grad who's biding her time before plunging into the job market. She works as a nanny for a couple she refers to as Mr. and Mrs. X (Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti). Because Annie studied anthropology, she half convinces herself that she's doing field work on Manhattan's Upper East Side, a cloistered enclave where good parenting seems to consist of attending school meetings rather than spending time with one's child.

Linney knows how to do frosty, and she does it here with the expected success. If Giamatti, who played Pekar in "American Splendor," welcomed the opportunity to portray a bona fide heel, he should be delighted. Mr. X is a philandering businessman who specializes in scowls and mergers. He's also not much of a homebody.

The minor roles don't add a great deal. Alicia Keys appears as Annie's best friend, and Chris Evans portrays a Harvard grad who lives in the building where Annie takes care of the WASPishly named Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art).

Johannson dies her hair brown and generally finds ways to let us know that her character is subservient to Mrs. X. Don't feel bad for the generically named Mr. and Mrs. X; they refer to Annie only as "Nanny." Despite the intimacy of the living situation -- or maybe because of it -- the demanding Mrs. X maintains an impersonal quality in all her conversations with Annie.

Following suit, we'll refer to "The Nanny Diaries" as movie. Not good movie. Not bad movie. Just movie. You can take it from there.

By the way, if you want to read my review of "Resurrecting the Champ," you can find it at My former editor e-mailed and asked if I could review the movie. I did, although I'm not anxious to get back into the daily reviewing game as a matter of routine. Too crazy. Not enough time to think. Interferes with leisurely lunches and naps.

And a word or two about "Rocket Science." This small but generally intelligent charmer tells the story of a stuttering teen-ager (Reece Daniel Thompson) who improbably tries out for his high-school debate team. Thompson's Hal responds to a request from super-debater Ginny (Anna Kendrick), a girl who catches his shy eye and who won't take no for an answer. Some of the ingredients employed by Jeffrey Blitz, who directed the winning documentary "Spellbound," reach for quirky extremes -- Thompson's character's troubled family, for example. His older brother (Vincent Piazza) bullies him; his dad has left his mom; his mom takes up with a Korean judge who lives on her block. But most of the time, "Rocket Science" manages to be idiosyncratic without being off-putting, and it's one of the more enjoyable films to come out of last January's Sundance Film Festival. When the movie sticks with Hal's high-school adventures, it does fine. Better still, Blitz has the decency not to move the story toward the most predictable conclusion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Denerstein:

I intended to write to you numerous times over the years that you were the Rocky's movie critic, but as you know there is a road to a perpetually warm destination that is paved with good intentions. We were out of town earlier this year and by the time we got back you had, to our astonishment and dismay, taken a buyout.

What I was going to tell you is that we (my wife, Lynda, and I) have always enjoyed your reviews, finding them to be consistently well-written. We were routinely guided by those reviews, with a common question on a Friday afternoon being "What does Denerstein say?" about a new movie.

I think there was no qualitative difference between your reviews and those of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (at least none that would have tilted in their favor), and that if you had written in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles you would have been just as famous, although we are glad you chose to stay in Denver.

We only went against your advice a few times, such as going to John Travolta's Battleship Earth (I think that's right) despite your scathing review. It was the only movie we've ever walked out on and taught us a valuable lesson about the importance of paying attention to your reviews.

The one review I always planned to challenge you on, but never got around to in 22 years, was the one on "Out of Africa." You wrote words to the effect that Robert Redford turned in a "moody star turn," while we thought his portrayal of Denys Finch Hatton was outstanding and conveyed why a woman as strong and independent as Karen Blitzen would fall completely in love with him despite his faults.

While Redford clearly had an American accent despite the character's British name (I've read that he was willing to do a British accent but that director Sidney Pollack decided that American audiences wouldn't buy it), we can't imagine anyone else playing that role, and "Out of Africa" remains one of our very favorite movies of all time.

Thanks for listening and for all the years of superb critical reviews of movies. Best of luck in your new career as a freelance critic. We'll be reading all of your reviews and using your "grades" to determine if we are going to see a movie or not.

Steve Oppermann