Ever since Farrah Fawcett made lethal use of a gas can and a mattress to rid the world of her abusive, pig husband in 1984’s “The Burning Bed,” men have not had a good time of it in the film genre that used to be called ‘Of particular interest to Women.’ Now we just call them Chick Flicks, and they generally espouse the message that the world would be a much better place if only it wasn’t cluttered up with pig male bosses, pig husbands, and pig boyfriends. (Sorry, pigs) In these films, women are portrayed as long-suffering saints, except for the rare female villain whom, we are assured, is usually a potential saint whose negative behaviors were the direct fault of some man. But now the pendulum is swinging back from the extreme. Witness 2006’s “The Devil Wears Prada” and 2007’s “The Nanny Diaries,” two films that gleefully abandon the previous sanctimonious attitudes, and allow Anne Hathaway in “Prada” and Scarlett Johansson in “Diaries” to be demeaned, put upon, and downright abused, albeit, in a humorous fashion, by their respective female employers.
Jersey Girl Annie (Scarlett Johansson) has just graduated college and, unwilling to follow Mom’s advice and pursue a job in Big Business, and equally unsure of her passion for anthropology, she literally stumbles into a job as Nanny to a wealthy Manhattan couples’ (Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti) young son. Installed in their lavish apartment, Nanny, as she’s patronizingly referred to by all the family, (a device that effectively removes her identity), quickly comes to realize she may have made a terrible mistake. She is expected to be the 24/7 teacher, nurse, surrogate mother and father to the neglected tot, operating within a stiflingly narrow set of shallow Yuppie rules, and also be the recipient of blame and mental abuse for all the frustrations and unhappiness suffered by Linney as her marriage spirals downward. Only her growing attachment to the little boy, Grayer (Nicholas Art), and her fear for his future without her, keeps her from asserting her independence and leaving a job where she is unappreciated, and little more than a servant. If all this sounds a little somber for a comedy, it is, and the inconsistency in tone is the film’s major drawback.
The Defending Champion
Andy (Anne Hathaway), a recent college grad, wants a career in journalism, and she’s heard that a year working for the iconic Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), head of New York’s most influential fashion magazine, will allow her to write her own ticket later. But Andy has no interest in clothes, and displays not a whit of fashion sense, but her pluckiness, in true Hollywood style, lands her the job as the assistant to the assistant of Miranda, herself, a posting that, she’s told over and over, “A thousand girls would die for.” She soon comes to realize that this golden opportunity, is, in fact, an opportunity to be run ragged day and night, insulted about her appearance, and, in general, be the whipping-girl of the impossible-to-please magazine mogul, and her wannabe assistant, Emily (Emily Blunt). She would quit all this nonsense, but her pride, and that carrot of a dream job in the future, won’t let her. Andy, referred to by Miranda as only “The new Emily,” is determined to succeed, but finds that in doing so her personal relationships and core values are in danger of being lost.
“The Nanny Diaries” sports many clever ideas, including visual and musical evocations of that ultimate Nanny movie, “Mary Poppins;” and Annie’s interest in anthropology use whimsical dioramas from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to illustrate, and poke fun at, the wealthier denizens of Manhattan. Scarlett Johansson is earnest and effective in her portrayal of Annie, and Laura Linney is so good in her frighteningly cold role as “Mrs. X,” that you can hear Supporting Actress nominations whenever she’s onscreen. A welcome surprise is the appearance of songstress Alicia Keys as Annie’s best friend, and ground for her sanity. Keys is so naturally charismatic that she steals all her scenes, simply by showing up, although her line readings are quite good. Not welcome, though, is the aforementioned trouble with the film’s tone. It purports to be a comedy, but nothing is funny about children abused by neglect, and, as this is a major plot point, it negates any attempt at fun, and makes the proceedings bitter and mean, rather than satirical. I kept asking myself, aside from Annie’s growing love for Grayer, why she stayed in a job so demeaning and unfulfilling? It didn’t make sense, as her continued reticence about speaking out in defense of herself, and Grayer, also didn’t jibe. Then I learned that in the book, written by two former nannies, the protagonist really wanted a career as a Nanny, and genuinely needed the profferred job to survive. In this context, Annie’s silent subservience can be understood, but not in the movie version, which makes Annie’s reluctance to speak or act appear cowardly.
Clothes, on the other hand, do not carry the same emotional weight as children, thank God, so we can have a ball with Meryl Streep’s delicious portrayal of an icy bitch in “The Devil Wears Prada.” We’ve all seen ‘serious actors’ throw away performances when they take on a comedy, but that is not the case here. Streep makes her villainess multi-dimensional, (at least four), and easily makes all the nonsense that ensues an absolute joy to watch. Yes, even guys can howl through this movie. Luckily, I had my teen daughter along to interpret the fashion lingo, and exclaim over all the costume changes, so I could concentrate on the devastatingly witty script and canny performances. Anne Hathaway is extremely charming as Andy, and proves that her time in playing alongside the likes of Julie Andrews was not wasted. And her beauty is a gift to us, all. Emily Blunt, as Streep’s number one Emily, is very funny, and can even make you laugh at anorexia jokes. The rest of this cast is led by Stanley Tucci, who wisely makes his comic portrayal of a fashion designer a subtle one, in a role that could have gone hammy and one-dimensional. The weakest roles in both “The Nanny Diaries” and “The Devil Wears Prada” belong to the two romantic interests of Johansson (Chris Evans), and Hathaway (Adrian Grenier). They are purposely underwritten, and seem to exist only to show what each has to lose if they allow themselves to be immersed in their careers. My final complaint on both films is the setting they share: Don’t women treat each other poorly anyplace besides New York?
Let’s pick a winner…
All through “The Nanny Diaries,” I kept thinking, “She’s not a Nanny, she’s a Ninny!” for Annie’s failure to act in some way to rescue her charge, and her sense of self. And I didn’t believe the warm, “Let’s leave it on a positive” ending for a second. Thanks to someone’s decision to let the career of a Nanny be Johansson’s whim, and not her life choice, the whole movie rang false. So, “The Devil Wears Prada” wins in a walk. It is not the best movie you’ll ever see, but it is sure-handed in its delivery, confident in its execution, and another feather in the cap of Meryl Streep, who, as actors feathers go, must by now be sporting an Indian warrior’s headgear, at least.