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Hired Help
'Nanny Diaries' features a powerhouse cast

3 stars out of four

Don't let the late August release date and blatant chick-flick title keep you at bay.

"The Nanny Diaries" is backed by a fine pedigree and sports a primo cast. It's the second feature from husband-and-wife filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, creators of the 2003 genre-busting masterpiece "American Splendor."

Based on the acclaimed, best-selling 2002 novel of the same name by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, "The Nanny Diaries" is so warmly shot, it almost feels like an extended greeting card or fabric softener commercial.

Many of the innovative techniques the filmmakers brought to "American Splendor" are here - stop-motion and 3-D photography, animated storyboards and a sneaky, quasi-documentary narrative. Amazingly, the content is as equally captivating as the presentation.

Scarlett Johansson stars as Annie, a working-class New Jersey girl and recent college graduate with a degree in finance. Annie's nurse mother Judy (Donna Murphy) wants her to get a job with Goldman-Sachs. Annie wants to be an anthropologist.

Neither gets fulfillment after Annie has a chance meeting in Central Park with "Mrs. X" (Laura Linney). Although she has never been a nanny, Annie is rabidly pursued by Mrs. X and others like her simply because she is white and possesses a degree.

Mrs. X is the prototypical Upper East Side society gal. She doesn't work because Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) is a filthy rich workaholic in love with his job and mistress. He could care less about his wife, and gives his son Grayer (Nicholas Art) roughly five minutes of quality time per week.

Taking the job more or less as a time-killer and a chance to live in Manhattan for free, Annie soon realizes she's in way over her head. Mrs. X is a grating, anal-retentive monster who takes out her marital frustrations on Annie and Grayer while blindly ignoring her own vapid shallowness.

Annie's ports in the storm are her pull-no-punches friend Lynette (Alicia Keys) and the Xes' handsome neighbor (Chris Evans), whose Harvard education came none too easy.

According to the authors, their novel was a piece of fiction based on collective experiences working for some two dozen families over an eight-year stretch. Distilling all of this field work into one sad, spoiled-rotten female character provides Linney with yet another powerhouse showcase, but leaves the story as a whole somewhat wanting.

Also, given the fact that Annie has dozens of other offers, why doesn't she cut and run at the first hint of trouble? Ostensibly, she stays on so the movie can make the anthropological connection, but this premise is mysteriously left dangling.

The film goes far in driving home the point that great riches won't buy happiness and, in fact, might make happiness itself impossible.

It's also one of the best movies to ever address the absolute need for full-time parenting. Leaving child-rearing duties to the hired help - no matter how competent or earnest they might be - is no substitute for the real thing. (The Weinstein Co./MGM)