Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Emily Blunt
Aline Brosh McKenna (screenplay), Lauren Weisberger (novel)
20th Century Fox
There are two storylines in "The Devil Wears Prada," a sparkly, witty and frequently funny film loosely based upon Lauren Weisberger's year working as an assistant at Vogue magazine.
The first storyline is utterly brilliant, perhaps mainly because it features an utterly brilliant performance by Meryl Streep. Streep so convincingly becomes Miranda Priestly, the god-like editor of "Runway" magazine, that when Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) somewhat unknowingly stumbles upon her altar the events that unfold are cruel, hilarious, insightful, scary, damn scary and constantly, amazingly real. This first storyline is brilliant because it takes the audience inside the very real world of the cutthroat, ruthless and frighteningly fluid nature of the fashion industry and shows us its strengths, weaknesses, moral ambiguities and, ultimately, its twisted moral righteousness. We see the psychology behind a world where people change as quickly as fashions, and where selling one's soul is practically imperative for survival.
In this storyline, we are introduced to Andy, a naive, rather fashionless but intelligent young woman just graduated from Northwestern University with grand visions of a life in journalism. When she arrives at "Runway," it is clear, fantastically clear, that she is out of her element. Her initial encounter with Miranda's first assistant (deliciously played by an appropriately smarmy Emily Blunt), is one of uninvested condescension. It is as if this young assistant has learned the necessary routines for survival, but isn't particularly invested in them.
From her first moments onscreen, Meryl Streep literally exudes a devilish aura. Yet, much like the "Devil" on which she is based, Streep's Miranda is infinitely watchable, enticing, seductive and nearly impossible to resist. Streep's Miranda is worse than the "boss from Hell"...she's that "boss from Hell" who is such a master that you find it impossible to stop working for them.
Streep, who will most certainly garner a Golden Globe nomination from this performance, is frightening here because she didn't take the easy road to her portrayal of Miranda. The easy road, as somewhat more portrayed in Weisberger's novel, would have been a shouting, whining, hypercritical boss who openly and viciously attacks. These kinds of bosses certainly exist (Weisberger's boss is rumored to have been this way), however, the truly frightening boss is different.
Streep's Miranda possesses a sort of frightening righteousness befitting the most evil of cult leaders. Streep's Miranda controls rather than attacks, speaks in hushed, seductive tones rather than shouts, and lays out her expectations so clearly that her employees find it impossible to argue with them. Quite simply, Streep's Miranda is nothing short of comic brilliance. It is important to note that the cinematic version of Miranda is a slightly more humanized, revealing portrait than the literary Miranda. That Streep reveals this humanity without losing her evil is, perhaps, the greatest testimony to the brilliance of Streep's performance.
Streep is surrounded by equally righteous Andy, her assistants, and her lead designer (a very nearly scene-stealing Stanley Tucci). Perhaps the only weakness in this storyline lies in the presence of Christian Thompson (Simon Baker), a "seductive" writer who serves to counter Andy's plainer, supposedly more morally grounded boyfriend. While Baker is fine here, the character feels awkwardly out of place. The resolution, ultimately, is unsatisfying and only minimally addressed.
This first storyline works brilliantly because it focuses on Andy's struggle to survive, in essence, within this foreign culture. She is a fish out of water, and watching her learn to swim upstream is insightful, scary, funny and constantly entertaining.
Had "The Devil Wears Prada" stopped with this storyline, we would most definitely be looking at the best comedy in years. Unfortunately, in remaining somewhat faithful to Weisberger's novel, director David Frankel seeks to provide a background storyline about Andy involving her loyal, seemingly plain boyfriend (Adrian Grenier), her small circle of friends and her family.
These scenes, unfortunately, are both underdeveloped and, at times, unconvincing in painting the desired picture of a young woman with strong moral values who becomes seduced by "the dark side" only to return to her values wiser with greater insights.
In a film that feels remarkably free and expressive, these scenes feel stifling and restrictive. The chemistry between Andy and her boyfriend is casual at best, and the ending, in particular, betrays Andy's return to a moral grounding. Grenier, however, performs his role admirably and gives life to a character that could easily have been an afterthought.
It is, however, this relationship that bothered me most as I left my screening of "The Devil Wears Prada." Clearly, by the end of the film we are led to believe that Andy's moral center is best served by her relationship with her boyfriend. This relationship struck me as the typical young adult, "me" centered relationship that typically ends when one person in the relationship stops meeting the other person's needs. It didn't feel that vastly different from Andy's relationship with her boss, thus when she reconciles with the boyfriend and, ultimately, agrees to do what he wants it feels as if she's betraying the very lessons of empowerment she supposedly learned by working for "the devil."
Fortunately, the second storyline for "The Devil Wears Prada" is, by far, the lesser one. The vast majority of screen time is offered to Streep and Hathaway living out a hilarious, authentic and insightful expose' of the fashion world.
If looks can truly kill, Meryl Streep's Miranda may very well be the fashion industry's most notorious serial killer. Behind Streep's comic tour-de-force, David Frankel and his entire cast may very well have fashioned themselves this summer's first comedy blockbuster!
- Richard Propes
The Independent Critic