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February 6, 2007

As a professional journalist, I’m a bit skeptical of movies about journalism. So often it’s presented as either more glamorous or more corrupt than it really is. To be vulnerable to corruption you need power, and to live glamorously you need money. Most journalists have neither. But there are exceptions.

One is Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine. She reportedly makes $5 million a year, dates wealthy older men and refused to put Oprah Winfrey on the cover until she lost weight. Her decisions launch designers and set trends. She is, by all accounts, an autocratic and impossible boss.

In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep plays Miranda Priestly, a thinly veiled satire of Wintour. She gives orders that are either impossible to fill–procurement of the unpublished manuscript of the next Harry Potter novel by three, please–or too vague to comprehend–“Book me a table at that place that I like.” She is relentlessly critical and never smiles.

The protagonist of the film, ostensibly, is Priestly’s new assistant, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), a fresh Cornell grad who doesn’t know a thing–and couldn’t care less–about fashion. Her story is a familiar one: she’s a young idealistic journalist with a doting boyfriend who is seduced by the world of fashion journalism without even knowing it. Compared to Miranda, she’s about as interesting as a pair of socks.

There’s nothing new about making a difficult boss the comic foil for a likeable schlub, but the secret to Streep’s success is the counterintuitive choices she makes in playing the part. A mortal actress might have turned Priestly into a hot-tempered screamer; Streep delivers her lines in a voice barely above a whisper and rarely makes eye contact. She doesn’t get upset so much as she gets disappointed–and as any child knows, a disappointed parent is far more devastating than an angry one. When she is finished with her employees, she gives a brief skeptical glance, returns to her mockups and offers a singsong “That is all.” Rarely has passivity been so terrifying.

But she is not merely a caricature. It’s clear, from the reverence shown her by her loyal editor Nigel (Stanley Tucci) to her obsession over the details of fashion shoots, that her perfectionism drives her subordinates to do better. In some it even serves to inspire; in an approval offensive, Andy upgrades from Express to Chanel and trades her flats for stilettos.

We also get a few peeks behind the iron curtain of Miranda’s work persona. In one scene, Andy delivers a mockup of the next issue of Runway to Miranda’s house, a mission she is told must be conducted with absolute precision: no speaking to anyone, no spying on her impeccably decorated home. But she inadvertently sees Miranda engaged in a domestic squabble, and it’s a shock. Miranda is pleading with her husband to believe that she didn’t call because her cellphone couldn’t get a signal, and he gives her a disapproving stare. “I know what everyone was thinking,” he says. “He’s waiting for her again.” Later, during Fashion Week in Paris, we see Miranda without makeup, wrinkled and tired, expressing disappointment over her pending divorce in a tone not much different than the one she uses at work. The difference is this time, her disappointment is directed at herself.

Streep’s performance consumes the movie, offering a clinic in characterization that only highlights the weaknesses of Hathaway and some of the other young actors. Hathaway comes from the Sandra Bullock school of romcom acting; her klutziness and floppy hair practically beg us to peg her as “cute.” I didn’t buy it, and neither did I buy Adrian Grenier as her aspiring chef boyfriend. His role is little more than a foil to demonstrate how Sachs changes from minute one to minute 70, but he can barely handle the demands of being a cliché. Just as with his performance in Entourage, whenever he isn’t the fun-loving pretty boy, he’s utterly unconvincing.

The older actors seem to have a better handle on the material. Tucci makes a sympathetic, but believably bitchy, fashion editor, and Emily Blunt is hilarious as the desperately careerist first assistant to Miranda who explains to Andy that her job is much more important than Andy’s: she handles the budget and the schedule while Andy merely answers the phones. She also gets some of the best lines. “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight,” she says. One exception to the old actor/young actor divide is Simon Baker, who plays the charismatic freelancer who attempts to seduce Andy. With his inoffensive smile and his dreamboy charm, he’s quickly becoming the new John Corbett. (That’s not a compliment.)

Remarkably for such a predictable morality tale, the film treats all of its main characters with respect. Just as we come to know the exhaustion of being Miranda, we come to see the lonely pathos of being Nigel–and later, in the film, its consequences. As Emily, Emily Blunt allows us to understand the motivations of a character who absolutely refuses our sympathy. As another wearing day of groveling grinds on, she whispers to herself, “I love my job. I love my job. I love my job.”

As with Oscar fashion recaps, the putdowns provide some of the best laughs. Nigel refers to Andy by her size–six–and Miranda tells her, “I thought, why not take a chance on the smart fat girl?” And the absolute bombardment Andy receives for a blue (ahem, cerulean) sweater is a study in bitchy brilliance.

Indeed, that sweater serves as the focal piece of the best monologue in the film. After catching Andy giggle at her obsession over two nearly identical teal belts, Miranda tells her, “You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet, and you select, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care what you put on your back,” followed by a history of how cerullean made its way from the runways of Paris to the bargain bins of American chain retailers, and how millions of dollars were spent in the process. “It’s sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room… from ‘a pile of stuff.'”

It’s as much an implication of the viewer as it is of Andy. Watching The Devil Wears Prada, we laugh because the characters take the world of fashion too seriously. But the film subtly suggests that we don’t take fashion seriously enough.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 6, 2007 11:37 am

    Nice piece. Many of my favorite critics didn’t care for this one, but I liked it a lot.

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