For his directing debut, stage and film actor Justin Theroux has chosen an original and quixotic comedy about Henry Roth, a neurotic (verging on paranoid schizophrenic) children's book writer. He's played brilliantly by 2007 Tony Award winner Billy Crudup in the latest in a string of fascinating stage and screen characters -- both romantic and repugnant, sexy and sickly -- he's taken on since his Broadway debut a dozen years ago.
The misanthropic Henry can neither be a friend nor have one, except for writing partner/illustrator Rudy (Tom Wilkinson), who eventually becomes his guardian angel (literally). Among his many tics, Henry spurts aloud every vile thought that passes through his super-perturbed brain, and to assuage his anxiety, he must lie on the floor with heavy objects on his chest.
Exit Rudy and enter Lucy (Mandy Moore), a pretty girl with a few healthy neuroses of her own, not to mention her psychotic mom (Dianne Wiest) and Jeremy, the caddish Brit who dumped her (Martin Freeman). Now, Jeremy wants her back and has written his new book's dedication (the most obvious of the title's multiple meanings) to her.
Lucy really needs the job as Henry's illustrator, not to mention the hefty bonus she's been promised by Henry's editor (Bob Balaban) if she can bring in the next episode of his tres successful Marty the Beaver (all entendres intended) series. Henry's demeanor is so off-putting that it's a minor miracle when Lucy makes any kind of connection with him. However, because she does, so do we and we root for them to somehow keep their tenuous connection going. It's a tribute to Moore's growing acting ability that she understands how to underplay this character, who's like Alice at the Mad Tea Party!
Theroux, who's had on-the-set opportunities to study such edgy directors as David Lynch, Mary Harron, and Amos Poe, delivers no easy ending with this first rate, meta-downtown New York romantic comedy. It's smart, funny, and really dark -- just perfect for today's angst-ridden scene.
The duo obviously thought this story about Annie (Scarlett Johansson), a college student working part time as a nanny for a demanding Park Avenue matron known only as Mrs. X (Laura Linney, giving a surprisingly two-note performance), would be perfect as their first studio film. But major shifts of focus from page to screen have turned a smart satire into a hazy coming-of-age rom-com. The pair also changed the nanny's major from child-development to anthropology, so that they could examine Upper East Siders as sociological specimens in dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. But this conceit only serves to remind audiences of Ben Stiller's recent mega-comedy, A Night at the Museum.
Unfortunately, a brunette dye-job alone cannot turn the very distinctive Johansson into a credible 'Annie from New Jersey.' Totally credible, as always, is two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy as Judy, Annie's mom, a nurse who fairly reeks of Hackensack. Congrats are also due to cinematographer Terry Stacey, who captures the picture book New York envisioned by Berman and Pulcini.
In the film's tacked-on happy ending, Nanny gets her Ken doll of a 'Harvard Hottie' neighbor (a woefully uncharismatic Chris Evans), while Mrs. X learns to bond with her kid after dumping Mr. X, a wildly successful Thurston Howell, III clenched-jaw type, played by Paul Giamatti in a 180-degree turn from his earlier Sideways slob type.
Meanwhile, Alicia Keys, whose sitcom-like role as Annie's African-American best friend lands with a thud, at least gets a song on the soundtrack; while such award-winning stage actors as Julie White, Cady Huffman, and James Urbaniak are pretty much wasted in small and smaller cameos.
While one magazine critic called the book "a gimlet-eyed novel of dysfunction in the 10028 Zip Code," the only gimlets in the screen version of The Nanny Diaries come in a glass.