The 2002 novel "The Nanny Diaries" won high marks from critics for its precise dissection of the mores and manners prevalent in Manhattan's swanky Upper East Side. But in order to adapt this tale for audiences at the multiplex, who might not get wisecracks about Bendel's, Charles Addams or Collegiate, director-screenwriters Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini ("American Splendor") have understandably pruned most of those particulars away. (Imagine how audiences in Los Angeles or Topeka would respond to a movie stuffed with knowing references to Carytown or Windsor Farms.)
What's left over is toothless satire aimed at broad, shopworn caricatures of uppity New York types. Even a high-powered cast proves unequal to the task of breathing life into these bloodless, lazily conceived phantoms.
Our entrée into this glitzy world of shopping-crazed moms and philandering dads is Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson), who literally stumbles into a gig as nanny to one Grayer (Nicholas Art), an unfortunate kindergarten scion of Fifth Avenue. A recent business studies graduate, Annie is a humble Jersey girl whose mother (Donna Murphy), an exhausted nurse, harbors the questionable hope that her daughter will make a killing on Wall Street. But Annie's true love is anthropology, and she snaps at the opportunity to postpone her initiation into stocks and bonds, regarding her new job as a chance to study the exotic tribe flourishing near the upper reaches of Central Park.
Little does she know that she's walking into a devil's lair, presided over by Mr. and Mrs. X, so named because of the conceit that what we're watching is based on Annie's anthropological fieldwork. (That joke gets threadbare mighty fast, but the movie doggedly picks at its tatters to the bitter end.) Mrs. X (Laura Linney) is a fearsomely chirpy lady who lunches (preferably Bergdorf's). She has lots of time for her dressmaker and her "causes," such as the Conga for the Congo, but little Grayer is woefully low on her list of priorities. For sheer villainy, however, she's not a patch on her husband (Paul Giamatti), a sinister presence -- or, more frequently, absence who, when he isn't driving hard bargains, uses his downtown office as a trysting place.
As in "The Devil Wears Prada," another film about an ingénue adrift in Manhattan and beset by glamorous monsters of egoism, our heroine's story is filled out with a far more centered downtown friend (Grammy winner Alicia Keys) and a cheerful love interest (Chris Evans), both of whom grow impatient with Annie's obsessing over the malevolence of her employers. Neither of these entities (it won't really do to call them characters) has been endowed with a personality. At best, they seem little more than stick figures trapped on the storyboard, struggling to come to life.
While Annie grows ever more despondent about the Xs' parental neglect and ceaseless demands on her time, all Johansson can do is ring the changes on pouty indignation. The brightest spots in her performance come as she introduces Grayer, who since teething has endured a high-soy organic diet, to the naughty pleasures of peanut butter and Cheerios. But even as her heart melts for the abandoned tyke, and she contemplates breaking "the cardinal rule of nannydom" telling your charges that you love them Annie's affections seem oddly tamped down and uninvolving.
In general, "The Nanny Diaries" can't quite decide whether it wants to skewer the rich or paint them as victims of their lavish circumstances, deserving of our pity. The wonderful Laura Linney bears the brunt of this indecisiveness in the script, when midway through the movie Mrs. X's brittle facade starts to crack, revealing a wounded heart. But by then we're so accustomed to her cartoonishness that it's impossible to care. Giamatti has more luck as the heavy, endowing his early scenes as Mr. X with a positively unnerving stoniness. But by the end, he's just a garden-variety lout, leering and pawing with abandon.
At one point in her stilted narration, Annie laments, "My desire to be an observer of life was keeping me from actually living one." It's a line the filmmakers should have taken to heart. In their attempt to create easy targets of satire, they forgot to give us people of flesh and blood. (PG-13) 105 min. S