Title: The Devil Wears Prada
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: David Frankel
Screenwriters: Aline Brosh McKenn
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Adrian Grenier
To the extent that The Devil Wears Prada is an actors’ showcase and a sly send-up of the fashion industry, the film works brilliantly. It’s the story that fails: thematically incoherent, too typical, and borderline hypocritical, its inadequacy hit me each time I took a break from enjoying the movie’s surface pleasures and thought about what was going on. Fortunately, those surface pleasures are such that it hardly matters.
Meryl Streep reigns over The Devil Wears Prada in much the same way that Miranda Priestly rules the halls of the Runway Magazine offices. Every piece of withering sarcasm, every dismissive “that’s all” becomes a pointed and personal insult, an unambiguous assertion of the recipient’s worthlessness. The screenplay is helpful in this regard: Miranda frames her barbs in global terms, not only telling her underlings that they are incompetent for failing to do X, but insisting that she doesn’t understand why it is so difficult to do X properly. “It’s just so confusing to me.”
Watching Streep as the icy fashion goddess was more than sufficient to occupy me for 109 minutes, but the film adds Stanley Tucci as one of Priestly’s most faithful employees. Tucci is perfect, making his character a type without making him a stereotype. Watching him sweep through the magazine’s storehouse of designer clothes to give Anne Hathaway’s hapless Anna Sachs a makeover is hysterically funny for reasons I can’t quite comprehend. “We’ll do this Dolce for you! And we’ll do this Gucci for you!” he asserts, throwing the clothes at the poor girl without so much as looking in her direction.
The movie is full of these sorts of witty details, from Miranda’s expounding to the extremely un-fat Anna why she decided to hire “the smart fat girl” instead of the worshipful, emaciated dimwits she usually prefers, to Emily Blunt’s absolutely perfect First Assistant, who schools Anna, the new Second Assistant, in the most uncharitable way possible. For all the exaggeration on display, Runway Magazine becomes a real place, alive and terrible.
Anna’s personal journey, on the other hand, did not sell me. The premise of the film is that Anna “sells her soul” — abandons her friends, her personality, her quirky way of dress, and becomes just another thoughtless, self-absorbed fashionista. The movie insists on this; Anna’s boyfriend (a bored-looking Adrian Grenier) says so, her friends sneer at her, she herself becomes despondent. But I didn’t see this at all. She is late a few times, yes; she is even late for her boyfriend’s birthday, but she runs in with a birthday candle cupcake in her hand. She changes her clothes — a requirement of her job. She remains nice, friendly, and caring; she takes the initiative to bring her friends expensive presents from the office.
So what’s the big deal? Moreover, why aren’t her friends less petty and more understanding? She makes it clear that her job is a one-year stint meant to give her a chance at her big break as a journalist. It is a job that “most girls would kill for.” Given all that, shouldn’t her boyfriend support her, help her, tell her that it will be okay, that this too shall pass, that the job is her ticket to the career that she wants? Instead he sulks and berates her. Why?
What The Devil Wears Prada does, in the end, is embrace to the shallowness that it seems to satirically condemn. It surrenders to the idea that the clothes its protagonist wears make her a different person. The Anna I saw wearing Gucci is the same Anna I saw wearing a debatably ugly blue sweater and plaid skirt — perhaps more confident and composed, but no less (or more) pretty, ambitious and sweet.
And so the third act, which forces on us Anna’s journey of self-discovery, seems wrong. I realize that the film merely gives us the character arc that this sort of plot demands, but this particular story called for something else. If The Devil Wears Prada weren’t so infectiously entertaining, it may have been regrettable.