Movie Review: The Devil Wears Prada: Apologies All Around

July 21, 2006
Alan Dale

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.

Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

--Matthew 4:8-10


Would The Devil Wears Prada be as popular with a title that more accurately described it, say, The Girl Who Was Just Too Nice to Work at a Fashion Magazine? Be forewarned: The movie promises more hell than it delivers.

Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), an earnest, frumpy Northwestern journalism major, gets a job as second assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the editor-in-chief of Runway magazine, the arbiter of taste in international fashion. Andy doesn't care about clothes or Runway, and is an apparently beastly size 6, but Miranda takes a chance on her because Andy is intelligent and the last two stick-thin drones were "disappointments." Adapted from Lauren Weisberger's fictional write-up of her months slaving for Anna Wintour at Vogue, the story isn't a novel but a romance of temptation, as the title suggests. Miranda may be the high priestess of high fashion, but with respect to Andy, author of "worthy" college-newspaper articles, she's Satan offering a splendorous but superficial world, the only world Miranda imagines anybody truly wants (but one in which betrayal is the norm).

The romance of temptation, in which the protagonist's soul undergoes a symbolic test, has been a durable genre, high and low, from the Book of Job through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Faust on down to The Devil's Advocate (1997). If, however, the heroine is going to be as immune to temptation as Andy is, like Job and Jesus before her, then the spiritual dimension better be staggering, as it is in Job and the Gospels, because the narrative will have no suspense.

Not only is the spiritual dimension far from important in The Devil Wears Prada, it's incoherent. Andy is such a good girl, so resourceful and determined, that she overcomes her antipathy to the job and starts dressing up and living the part of assistant. If she changes on the inside we don't see it, and yet the movie treats her like a cutthroat sell-out.

This is what we do see: Andy hands out thousands of dollars' worth of designer accessories and cosmetics to her friends over dinner and then when she gets a call from Miranda they play keep-away with her cell phone and are shocked when she calls them "assholes." Andy misses her boyfriend's birthday party only because Miranda orders her to work late. Afterwards, she passes up an opportunity to have a drink with the editor of New York, and possibly further her dream career as a journalist, in order to rush home and give b.f. a Magnolia Bakery cupcake with a candle in it. He goes to bed barely speaking to her. Later, a friend sees Andy receive an unsolicited peck on the cheek from some guy on the make and scolds her, saying she doesn't know the person Andy has become. These friends could function in the concept only if they represented allegorical virtues that Andy transgresses; failing that they come off as prigs. (And none of them speaks those magic words: "I'll pay your rent while you look for a worthier job."

At work, Andy is promoted over Emily (Emily Blunt), Miranda's bitchy first assistant, and is tapped to accompany the boss to Paris for fashion week. It's entirely a merit-based promotion, and yet Andy tries to turn it down because of how much the trip means to Emily, and still feels guilty after Miranda insists, though Emily is physically incapacitated at the time anyway. (Andy is also unfailingly, and admirably, pleasant to the wretched Emily.) The movie seems to concur when the other characters treat Andy as if she connived to get the trip.

So Andy starts out whining and ends up apologizing. She also, naturally, quits Runway, leaving Miranda in the lurch, which is actually the only thing she does in the movie for which she owes anybody an apology. She supposedly redeems herself with a job on a newspaper that covers things like labor disputes. (At which point Miranda acts not as tempter but as fairy godmother.)

The Devil Wears Prada is as much of a drag as All About Eve would be if the Eve character were as harmless and devoted to the star to whom she's a personal assistant as she claims to be. Oh, and if the dialogue didn't crackle. Much of the supposed wit here consists of "gay" one-liners at Andy's expense given to Emily and Runway's fashion editor Nigel (Stanley Tucci). Andy herself tells Nigel how tired they become--the scriptwriter should have listened to herself.

Because Andy is such a very good girl, The Devil Wears Prada is not structurally a work of irony, so Streep's showy, semi-satirical turn as the quirky demanding boss isn't set in a fitting context. Streep does give some memorable line readings, particularly the tiny bell tinkle in the way she dismisses people by saying, "That's all." Giving Miranda a quiet manner and voice is inspired; we have to refocus our antennae to pick up how withering a slight purse of the lips can be. Streep has enormous theatrical skill but in the past she has tried too hard in comedy. In She Devil (1989) and Death Becomes Her (1992), she wasn't lazy but didn't waste any subtlety on us, as if the very idea of Streep playing for laughs would slay us. She's calmer and much more economical here, as she is in A Prairie Home Companion, in which Robert Altman softens her even more by giving her less control over when she'll be heard in a scene. Together, these are the most singing of Streep's performances, and I don't think she's ever been more gorgeous.

Maybe the movie would have worked better for me if Miranda had been the lead role. She could be a lampoon character and still have more scope if the movie were more like SoapDish (1991), starring Sally Field as the soap opera headliner clinging to stardom, or The Belles of St. Trinians (1954), starring Alastair Sim in drag as the headmistress of a girl's school trying to make ends meet. (He also plays "her" own shady brother.) It's paltry to ask us to resent Miranda, who is a fictional boss, after all; that just hard wires the whining into the movie's structure.

Instead, the script wobbles between broad satire and "human" touches. For instance, it tries to give Miranda dimension by showing her without makeup sighing over her latest failed marriage and saying that the inevitable bad press is so unfair to her twin girls (who otherwise seem about as vulnerable as Thing 1 and Thing 2). If they wanted us to respond to Miranda as a realistic character, they would have done well to show us how much oil it takes to put a placid surface on those turbulent waters. Sadly, the single most interesting aspect of the plot--how Miranda manages to keep her feet during a personnel earthquake at Runway's parent company--isn't in the movie. And Hollywood not being as confident as it was when it made Funny Face (1957), featuring Kay Thompson in a take-off on Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, The Devil Wears Prada doesn't even show us how Miranda's aesthetic decisions shape style (as in the "Think Pink" number in the earlier movie).

Yes, there's a heart-of-darkness element to working for a powerful, high-profile boss in a glamour industry, precisely because a million girls would kill for the job, as Andy is repeatedly told. Any time underlings become fungible, and the person in power is not publicly accountable, the results aren't pleasant. But Swimming With Sharks (1995), starring Frank Whaley as the assistant to Hollywood talent agent Kevin Spacey, understands temptation romance in a way The Devil Wears Prada doesn't. In that movie, success is a bad outcome because it makes the assistant like the person he fears and loathes. Hathaway's Andy is made over on the outside only; she knows she's not like Miranda even when Miranda tells her she is. By contrast, Whaley undergoes a frightening transformation from a shiny-bright hopeful to a hotshot with a black hole for an aura talking big to his buddies. (Swimming With Sharks also counters the canard, mindlessly repeated by Andy in The Devil Wears Prada, that if a male boss did what Miranda does he would be praised rather than blamed. The movie is so dumb it doesn't realize that that would be no excuse even if it were true.)

And yet Anne Hathaway is surprisingly good as Andy, and actually carries this clumsily conceived wreck. She's not conventionally pretty, certainly not in the early scenes, but she glamorizes beautifully. I especially like the Rococo silhouette her sloping shoulders give her. Even better, Hathaway makes Andy recognizably the same girl throughout, dressed up or down--a bit gosling-eyed and gawky, but reasonably centered and down-to-earth. She's believably nice without being yucky and has a few wonderful moments of comic teasing involving a Marc Jacobs bag and then a high-end lacy bra.

The Devil Wears Prada is especially disappointing coming from director David Frankel whose first feature, Miami Rhapsody (1995) starring Sarah Jessica Parker, is arguably the finest American comedy with a sole female protagonist. I'm not sure how The Devil Wears Prada could be better without a radical overhaul, but perhaps its success will open doors for Frankel to do more distinctive work in the future.

Alan Dale earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and a J.D. from Yale Law School. He currently works as a corporate tax attorney in Washington, D.C. He is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.
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Movie Review: The Devil Wears Prada: Apologies All Around


Author: Alan Dale


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July 24, 2006
12:23 AM

Sounds to me like a member of the capitalist elite putting on a sham pour encourager les autres What, oh what, has happened to film?

Alan Dale
July 30, 2006
09:29 PM

I take you to mean that DWP is another instance of Hollywood pretending to value integrity and morals more than money and success, and cashing in like pirates on the ruse. Yes, but Hollywood movies have always made little hypocritical moral romances of this type. The difference now is that true, root irony is possible in American movies, though generally independent movies, and even occasionally tragedy.

July 30, 2006
10:55 PM

Yep, and the same is true in Bollywood, about which I am not sure of your level of knowledge.

We saw this adaptation of Chekov's Sisters last night (Hollywood), and while it was a well-acted film, it had emotional flaws big enough to fit a dacha in, and Americanized beyond the point of recognition. For example, one of the sisters has terrible memories of her family house and yet when the brother sells it to assert his independence, she is livid, claiming to have good memories of the place.

Pulp Fiction - now there's a moral romance. And so is the exquisite Dominion(Schrader) that I finally watched last night, and will compare soon to the Renny Harlin version.

October 25, 2006
04:14 PM

its a fun 90 min film, the usual bumpkin turns princess story line.
ill see it, laugh a bit and forget about it in a few months. its a comedy, what else do you expect??

its no david lean movie and im fine with that. i suggest all viewers should be too.

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