The Devil Wears Prada
Director: David Frankel. Cast: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Emily Blunt, Adrian Grenier, Simon Baker, Daniel Sunjata, Tibor Feldman, Stephanie Szostak, Tracie Thoms, Rich Sommer, David Marshall Grant, Gisele Bundchen, James Naughton, Rebecca Mader, George C. Wolfe. Screenplay: Aline Brosh McKenna (based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger).

Photo © 2006 20th Century Fox
One cannot say that Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) walks into her internship at Runway Magazine with totally rose-colored glasses. Striding into her interview in drab slacks and corduroy jacket, subliminally accented with the purple V-neck sweater of a proud Northwestern graduate, Andy is just looking for a step-ladder into a career in what she considers to be more serious journalism. Even the editor of a major college newspaper, boasting a clip-file of news stories about labor strikes and feminist rallies, expects to pay her dues somewhere far afield of her heartfelt interests—which means that even before Andy discovers that her boss Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is the devil, and that the devil indeed wears Prada, and Mizrahi, and De La Renta, and who knows what else, ideals have already been compromised. Yes, Miranda will run Andy into the ground in ways she cannot conceive when she passes her resumé across Miranda's desk. Perhaps she doesn't realize that being the personal assistant to a magazine editor involves precious little in the way of journalism, or perhaps she does. But Miranda, from the beginning, is something of a personal assistant to Andy, too—knowledge that both women clearly share. Miranda's famous name is the boost Andy needs to get where she is going. "I just have to stick it out for a year, one year," Andy vents to her boyfriend, "and then I can do what I came to New York to do." Though the script positions this speech as an exasperated response to a day of intense, scornful humiliation, this wisdom isn't new. The Devil Wears Prada, to its credit, and despite the lip-smacking title it inherits from Lauren Weisberger's memoir-à-clef, isn't just a cartoon about a ruthless Manhattanite boss devouring a naïve, hardworking, and well-intentioned underling, but an intermittently fierce comedy about reciprocal exploitations, including the way that an upstart exploits the established success of a superior, and also the way she gradually understands (even if she doesn't finally accept) her boss' icy realpolitik as a logical, possibly necessary outgrowth of her success in a competitive industry.

That, I think, is the most generous available read for this movie, and the highest praise earned by its principal cast is that they work hard to mine it from an ore-encrusted script that sometimes loses sight of its own most interesting layers. This is another way in which The Devil Wears Prada, via its shining stars, understands that division of labor is not as clean as it might look, and you sometimes have to strain yourself in the name of a greater good, or an elusive but deserving goal. When the movie works, it finds an agreeably smart and deliciously entertaining mix of perceptive analysis and lightweight fantasy within the basic story. Occasionally, The Devil Wears Prada almost spoils its own premise by being too savvy, and casting too adroitly. Meryl Streep plays Miranda Priestly so much more wittily and unexpectedly than she might have, and with such principled, anti-chauvinist convictions ingrained within her plummy, mall-friendly villainy, that the character doesn't quite play as a devil: we understand her too well, and we root for her a little too much. Anne Hathaway, less spry and seasoned than her co-star but hardly a blank slate, and deserving of more credit than she's bound to receive, refuses to cloud Andy's lucid grasp of professional indignities. She also rises almost believably to the occasions of Miranda's most unbelievable requests, delivering a five-star steak from an expensive restaurant in record time, memorizing two binders' worth of corporate-Olympian faces and names with less than a day to prepare, finagling a top-secret manuscript of a still-unpublished Harry Potter manuscript. Without condescending to the material—in fact, by giving it more credence than the high-concept, slap-happy producers probably did—both actresses start the movie significantly ahead of the simple lion/gazelle dichotomies that the script and especially the director keep pushing. Enjoyment of The Devil Wears Prada thus follows three phases: 1) a racing pleasure that the movie gets down to business between Hathaway and Streep so swiftly, further quickened by the obvious keenness of both actresses, plus the unexpected verve of My Summer of Love's Emily Blunt in the sideline role of Miranda's other assistant; 2) a central interlude of relaxed but abiding pleasure, as the plot fails to generate anything as interesting as what Streep, Hathaway, and Blunt have been serving up since the appetizer course; and 3) a regrettable sense of deflation that Prada stuck with the script it had, tripping over boring characters, clotted subplots, and empty realizations, rather than re-tailoring itself to fit what the performers were ready to give.

Why, we ask, are all the men in this movie so boring? Stanley Tucci at least has some fun glazing his hambone role as Miranda's closest and most trusted colleague, but the droopy earnestness of Adrian Grenier as Andy's boyfriend Nate, the dashing but unfilled silhouette of Brother to Brother's Daniel Sunjata as an up-and-coming fashion celebrity, and the soggy cereal that is Simon Baker, cast as a cocky freelance journalist and a temporary fling for Andy, bespeak a failed division of labor on the part of the movie itself. Did the director, David Frankel, spend any time with these actors? Did the screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, ever pause to ask who they are? As novel as it is to see a movie, especially a summer crowd-pleaser, where the women are complicated and interesting and the men are tertiary plot devices, The Devil Wears Prada becomes something of a runway embarrassment; its characters and narratives frequently don't match each other very well. Worse, the people and conflicts which the film cares least about become more and more central to the screenplay as it unfolds. We end the movie with Streep dropping a bomb of Machiavellian maneuvering, though its backstory has been wholly occluded and its impact is hardly as great as the film imagines; with Baker and Sunjata utterly adrift, each of them failing to register a legible reaction-shot to the destinies they have just been dealt; with Blunt an almost distant memory; with Grenier somehow reconciling with his estranged girlfriend while simultaneously revealing that he has taken a job in another city; and with Hathaway herself moralistically installed at one of those "serious" publications that the film knows nothing about and takes no real interest in. This can't be what The Devil Wears Prada really wanted as a conclusion, and it rather betrays the movie's bravest and most interesting contention: that fashion isn't, in fact, as inherently frivolous as Hathaway's Andy initially believed. Streep practically burns a hole into the middle of the film when she lectures Andy about the history of a garment and the genealogy of a color (not blue, not turquoise, not lapis, but cerulean), and though The Devil Wears Prada is gamely willing to poke some fun at the world it describes, the movie generally avoids making the easy pillory of haute couture that, say, Little Miss Sunshine does of child beauty pageants. But finally, none of this matters. The movie ends with a clunk as Miranda pulls a fast one, Andy divorces her for it, Frankel loses all sense of how to shoot or edit anything creatively, and the pop soundtrack crescendoes over a disappointing mess of exposed seams and loose threads.

Best, then, to forsake our briefly rewarded hopes of a fully integrated film and to savor what's best, brightest, and most exciting about the movie we actually get. This is not, after all, a terrible way to regard a fashion spread itself: understanding clothes as riffy, imaginative aggregates of the old and the new, the inspired and the functional. Prada's own ensembles follow this basic maxim, yielding a film that is more satisfying to glance at and casually deconstruct than to contemplate at length. Rather than graduate Hathaway from dowdiness to elegance, then, the costumes by renowned fashionista Patricia Field move her from indifference to ambition, with intriguing if somewhat mixed results. I still pout on Hathaway's behalf when she makes her first big entrance as a rehabilitated wearer of clothes: Field smothers her beneath a helmet of low-hanging bangs and stiff, straight hair, then encases her in layers of black on black on black, including some waist-high boots, until she finally resembles some sort of cross between an aspiring hooker and a rabbinical student. I think it's the worst outfit in the movie, but you can't say it's predictable, and as a result, you spend the rest of the movie critiquing each ensemble instead of accepting them all as one straightforward arc into sartorial brilliance. The movie works that way, too, disclosing an odd mix of craft and carelessness throughout, until delineating between the two becomes a sport in itself. Thus, Florian Ballhaus' camerawork waffles between some inspired shots, like the unnerving, handheld swoops that underscore the agitated atmosphere during a tense run-through in Miranda's office, and some lazy, vapid punchlines like the quick cut to a Florida hurricane as seen through Miranda's hotel window. The soundtrack makes zesty use of latter-day Madonna in an early montage, but settles later for the groaningly obvious finger-snap lead-in to "Vogue." The script spins surprising, fertile variations on the rapport between Andy and Miranda (even their names are more compatible than they seem) but fails to devise a single interesting moment for any of Andy's gaggle of friends. Director Frankel allows Streep to humanize and deftly re-orchestrate her show-stopping monologues—look at how she cleverly demotes an interesting line about Miranda "living on hope" as a tasty, subliminal sneak within a ferocious comic aria about hiring "the smart, fat girl"—but then he cheapens and dulls Miranda's "humanity" by equating personal despair with unkempt hair, baggy eyes, and an absence of makeup. The editor, Mark Livolsi, economically squeezes Andy's flowering as a fashion maven into a pert montage of concealed cuts, then bungles the whole thing by suggesting that Miranda doesn't notice this transformation for at least the first week. (Miranda is contemptuous, but she isn't unobservant.) Emily Blunt works charming, dexterous wonders as a mini-harridan, selling lines about "hideous skirt conventions" so that they're jubilant in their cruelty instead of rotely antagonistic, and yet the role increasingly comes across as a screenwriter's mechanism for generating extra conflict and extra jokes.

In all of these ways, The Devil Wears Prada is an ideal movie for DVD: you can pick and choose moments and lines to revisit ("By all means, move at a glacial pace—you know how that thrills me") while ignoring, or trying to ignore, the thematic compromises, hectoring impulses, and structural handicaps that start to engulf the film. In the right hands, it would make a great TV series, especially if the writers learned to play toward their best characters and richest ideas, and to shuck everything that doesn't work. As a movie, it's uneven and sometimes just ungainly, but for better and for worse, it's an intriguing auto-commentary on the uneasy relations between entertainment and corporatism, and on the unlikely affiliations and effluences of talent and willpower that keep them both going. So what if the three putative antagonists—Hathaway, Streep, and Blunt—are actually the central allies in keeping the movie afloat on its sea of truncated insights, uneven casting, and uncertain technique? These women offer us pleasures and energies well beyond the call of duty, ensuring that the movie has something to offer to everyone. They save The Devil Wears Prada from turning into a Casual Corner knockoff, a bargain-basement dud. They make it sporty and wearable, and on at least a few occasions, they earn our applause. B–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Meryl Streep
Best Costume Design: Patricia Field

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Meryl Streep
Best Supporting Actress: Emily Blunt

Other Awards:
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Streep; also cited for A Prairie Home Companion)

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