Product Runway

Washington City Paper | June 30, 2006
The Devil Wears Prada is pretty much your standard recombinant chick flick: There’s generic aerial footage of New York. There’s a pretty starlet we’re supposed to accept as unattractive. There’s even a screenplay based on a novel whose fans are outraged at how crudely it’s been denatured. The scenario, not unlike that of 2004’s Little Black Book, is basically a workplace catfight in which a young woman is abused by a middle-aged harpy. Yet the movie’s actual power structure elevates genial apprentice Anne Hathaway over Oscar-devouring virtuoso Meryl Streep. As the confection goes down, that just might constitute a tickle of irony.

Adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s novel by scripter Aline Brosh McKenna and unimaginatively directed by TV veteran David Frankel, The Devil Wears Prada is set mostly in the offices of Runway, a magazine that should probably remind us of Vogue. Andrea “Andy” Sachs (The Princess Diaries star Hathaway), reportedly a Connecticut sophisticate in the book, has been Midwesternized into a sweetly styleless recent Northwestern grad who decides that her way into serious magazine journalism lies through the outer office of rhymes-with-beastly Miranda Priestly (Streep). Andy’s job application seems headed for the trash can, but then the mercurial editor unexpectedly decides to hire “the smart, fat girl.” (Andy is a Size 6.) The rest of the office consists principally of two people: Miranda’s irredeemably catty other secretary, Emily (Emily Blunt, who played My Summer of Love’s posh pathological liar), and her redeemably catty art director, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who tells Andy she’s hopeless and then provides her with the haircut appointment and million-dollar wardrobe that transform her into, well, a princess.

Streep’s Miranda is no Julie Andrews, but after about an hour of smirky bitchiness, she becomes less tormentor and more mentor. Indeed, Miranda’s absurd demands begin to weigh less heavily on Andy than does the disapproval of boyfriend Nate (Entourage’s Adrian Grenier), supposedly a regular guy who just happens to look like a male model. As things go worse with Nate, the newly stylish Andy attracts a suave and well-connected admirer, writer/editor/socialite Christian Thompson (Simon Baker), who’s supposed to be—I dunno, a young George Plimpton or something. When Andy accompanies Miranda to Paris for the annual designer showcases, Christian is also there, and Andy must make the sort of big decisions that would be wrenching if she weren’t the irreproachable—and thus one-dimensional—heroine of a contemporary Hollywood social comedy.

Movies are full of bad bosses, of course, but male ones rarely get equal billing with their worthy young antagonists. (One exception is Wall Street’s—but then, Oliver Stone is obsessed with malevolent father figures.) The female superior remains a particular object of horror in American society, and the clash of the maliciously lip-pursing Miranda and the earnest, full-mouthed Andy is the primal battle between experience (admirable in men, suspect in women) and innocence (always endearing—not to mention sexy). Even if Streep has insisted in interviews that she based Miranda on male tyrants she has known, this movie wouldn’t exist if Weisberger had written a novel about an inexperienced young woman who got an entry-level job working for some guy at Newsweek or Wired.

As its title promises, The Devil Wears Prada is a cavalcade of brand names—and not just in the showrooms and on the runways. While the camera embraces only the most upscale New York neighborhoods and picturesque Paris quartiers, the soundtrack features such fashionable brands as Moby and Belle & Sebastian, and it doesn’t skimp on more expensive acquisitions such as U2 and Madonna (“Vogue,” of course). Although the fashion-world cameos are less abundant than they were in Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear, big-name designers flit through the Parisian montages, and model Gisele Bündchen has a small part. The result is a movie that’s as entranced with couture-world glamour as Andy eventually is—which is exactly why her abiding interest in leaving Runway for some scruffy little newspaper is ultimately unconvincing. While The Devil Wears Prada’s script quietly extolls Andy’s integrity, its mise-en-scène celebrates the world she’s rejected.

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