The Devil Wears Prada

July, 2006, Comedy

Directed by:David Frankel

Starring:Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, and Adrian Grenier

The Devil Wears Prada

Five years ago, Lauren Weisberger, (a young ex-assistant to Ana Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief) wrote a novel in semi roman-a-clef style that described the Faustian bargain she nearly made with the bitch goddess called Success. David Frankel, (director of many episodes of the defunct “Sex in the City” television series) now brings Weisberger’s book to the screen utilizing two brilliant ingredients; a marquee star, (Meryl Streep) and a secret weapon by the name of Stanley Tucci. Their performances make this otherwise routine exercise in romantic comedy worthwhile, despite a storyline that has all the depth of Vogue’s breathless editorial content. Looking good has never looked so good, but the point of it all remains as contrived as couture itself.

“Andy” Sachs, (Weisberger’s fictional self) played by Anne Hathaway, comes to New York with a newly minted diploma in journalism and a desire to help right the world’s wrongs through honest reporting. But when the city’s daily papers and news magazines decide they can do without her talents, she goes to the offices of “Runway” magazine and applies for a position as 2nd assistant to Miranda Priestly, (Streep) the doyen of Seventh Avenue haut couture, a style maven whose managerial style has all the appeal of rancid butter. In dulcet tones laced with condescension, Priestly manages to radiate distain for everyone with whom she works, especially those required by their job descriptions to determine exactly what’s expected of them in catering to her whims. 

Insulted for her poor taste in personal wardrobe and intimidated by her boss’s dictatorial style, Andy struggles to fit into this hermetically sealed world but quickly discovers that her ability to successfully compete provides a real sense of self worth. Aided by Nigel, (Tucci) Priestly’s fey second-in-command, Andy quickly develops both a sense of style that reflects favorably on her employer and the street smarts necessary to threaten Emily, first assistant to Runway’s Ice Queen. Emily resents Andy’s progress almost as much as her live-in boyfriend Nate does; he’s an aspiring chef, whose placidity handles the manic stress of his kitchen with a degree of balance Andy’s incapable of developing. Rapid advancement at work, coupled with interpersonal tension at the office and growing frustration at home; what’s a burgeoning success in the fashion biz supposed to do?

As long as Prada focuses on the business of high fashion, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna really delivers; the lines she provides Streep and Tucci shrewdly examine both the economics and psychology of an industry that seems to alternate effortlessly between slick glamour and unconscious eye-popping self-parody, engaging the audience along the way in a nifty little examination of conscience. 

But the script spends far too much of its time and energy on Andy’s quest for what the self-help books call “healthy self-actualization”, which makes her about as stimulating and substantive as tapioca pudding. Hathaway, (whose Disney-ish good looks graced both of The Princess Diaries films) may have eyes as big and dark as manhole covers and a smile that stretches all the way from Manhattan to Canarsie, but her acting skills just don’t bring any credibility to the tensions involved in balancing Andy’s world of work and the life she’s trying to build with Nate outside it. He’s no help either; as played by Adrian Grenier, (the star of H.B.O.’s new series Entourage) Nate is such an easy going puppy dog it’s hard to determine what Andy sees in him. A sous-chef to match her skills as a fashionista? No way…

This rather vapid couple comes equipped with a pair of suitably vague friends, ethnically and sexually ambiguous enough to seal the portrait of Andy as someone profoundly at odds with the self-assured career woman the script creates. Hathaway just can’t manage this dissonance and to make matters worse, the script creates a false dichotomy between her desire for success and the inevitable competition which it engenders, suggesting a fundamental incompatibility which should offend any working woman. 

As Miranda, Streep has her best role in recent memory and she makes the most of it, delivering a stunningly packaged bundle of artifice capable of eating her own while remaining firmly perched atop the "best dressed" list and the industry which sustains it. Tucci’s androgynous Nigel is a perfect gem of performance; brittle, cynical, shy and quietly heroic, he’s the person who boosts Andy’s career even as his own aspirations are being dashed. For over twenty years this wonderful character actor has become a recognized face in television and movies without becoming a star. If an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor doesn’t come around next spring, there’s no justice in the system.(For those who are regular readers of  Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and W, there are enough wardrobe changes here to carry a dozen movies, but whether they accurately depict what’s hot in current fashion is for the cognoscenti to determine.)     

The trick in watching Prada is simple; ignore Andy, and concentrate on Miranda, Nigel and Emily; as boss, mentor and opponent, they provide a trio of office types you’ll not find anywhere else. The joys here may be fleeting, but they’re fun all the same. 

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