A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA jj
½ 

2006, PG-13, 106 mins.

Miranda Priestly: Meryl Streep / Andy Sachs: Anne Hathaway / Emily: Emily Blunt / Nigel: Stanley Tucci / Nate: Adrian Grenier / Lilly: Tracie Thoms / Christian: Simon Baker

Directed by David Frankel /  Written by Aline Brosh McKenna / Based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger

Question: Can a brilliant performance trump a mediocre script? 

That’s among the toughest dilemmas the film critic faces and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA readily typifies it.  Meryl Streeps’ Miranda Priestly emerges as one of the more memorable characters in any film from 2006.  She’s the editor of Runway magazine, the most influential publication of its sort in the world and she rules over her domain like a dictatorial empress.  Streep parades around with pomp, circumstance, and a nasty - oftentimes repellent - level of indignation for those under her. She’s not a cast iron b-i-t-c-h, but a sterling silver one.  It’s a brilliant performance of feminine bravado and soft-spoken cruelty and narcissism. 

Yet, the major problem with THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is that it never really populates this wonderfully wicked witch in a story that is equally compelling.

The film is based on Lauren Weisberger's 2003 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.  Some have claimed that the story is taken from her literal time working as an intern at Vogue magazine under iconic editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour.  Weisberger, in a smart marketing move, claims that she never based the book on either Wintour or her time with the magazine, but many readers chimed in to the contrary.  As a result, the book became a smash, spending six months on the New York Times’ Best Seller list.  It became known as the epitome of “chick lit.”  The book certainly made a stir in the sense that it allowed readers the chance to take an inside look at the gauntlet that is the fashion industry as well as trying to match up Weisberger's fictional personas with real life ones.

Unfortunately, the film never really emerges as anything as compelling as the source material might otherwise dictate.  The film is made up of too many divergent and regurgitated elements from other genre pictures.  The movie parades around as a semi-satirical black comedy about the often grueling daily lives of the men and woman that make a living working under an ice queen of a woman.  It also wants to provide a peek into how the world of the fashion industry is Darwinian, to say the least. 

This – at face value – could have been the material for a great, Christopher Guest-style mockumentary or a bleak satire that never dared to take easy roads with the material.  Instead, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA chooses a much more audience friendly approach with the subject matter.  It allows the satire to segue into redundant, after-school-special melodrama.  It pains to show us that – gasp! – the big fashion industry grabs you, chews you up, and spits you out and that – double gasp! – young, impressionable woman will become seduced by its allure and finally – triple gasp! – working in the industry will teach you valuable life lessons, like being honorable, trust your friends and don’t be a sell out. 

Yawn.

My main misgiving with the film is with the coyness with which the story transpires.  Surely, a film about a fashion magazine and it’s go-for-the-jugular work ethic could have been edgy and ripe with bleak commentary.  A much more fascinating and invigorating story would be to see a naïve and impressionable girl truly be lured in the circles of fashion hell, never to return from its magnetism.  THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA takes the road-most-traveled approach.  It wants to be a smashing expose on how the fashion industry is morally corrupt and how one woman must come to grips with the ethical choices that mare her daily job.  I guess by "ethical choices" the film means whether she should wear pants made by Gucci or Armani. 

The film wants our buy in to a plot that is as predictable and paper thin as an anorexic super model.  It’s a woefully predictable fish-out-of-water story about an ugly duckling that becomes an empowered and well-tailored gopher at her big fashion job and then realizes – gee whiz – that her new outward beauty is uglier and less desirable than her old life.  She re-discovers the beauties of her “past” life and discovers that the fashion world – dag-nammit – is superficial and silly.  To call THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA trite is an huge understatement.

Perhaps one of the larger problems is with the casting of the ugly duckling of the film – the gorgeous Ann Hathaway.  Excuse me, but has she not played this part before in THE PRINCESS DIARIES?  Also, maybe she’s just too pretty of a presence even when she is introduced as a fashion virgin.  Perhaps a better casting choice would have been to get an actress less glamorous and fetching in order to make her transition from Ivy-league graduate student to pompous and snobby fashion guru more effective.  I like Hathaway, but her presence in this film is a distraction.

The film opens with Hathaway’s character - Andy Sachs, a recent graduate of journalism - trying to make her way in the big city and live her dream as a magazine writer.  Gee, let’s cross off obligatory starry-eyed dreamer story plot elements:

A live-in boyfriend that loves her, but slowly will begin to grow weary of the woman she will become…check. 

A loving and caring father that will come to visit her and also grow equally despondent with the career choices she will make…check.

A Faustian protagonist that does not give Andy her dream job, but eventually lures her over to her intoxicating and power-trippy lifestyle…check.

A mentor figure that works with Andy that will – despite being initially displeased with her presence – help assist her with the in’s and out’s of her job and will “fix her up” as to please her boss…check.

Another handsome man with power that swoops into Andy’s life and that does immeasurable favors for her when the plot demands it and later makes her repay the favors when a chance at becoming a writer can be supplied through him…check. 

Anyway, Andy decides to apply for a job working at Runway magazine, despite having no fashion sense whatsoever (or, at least in our eyes, a normal fashion sense), nor has she even heard of the editor.  What she does not realize is that it’s editor, Miranda Priestley, is the most powerful person in the industry and she wields power like none around her.  However scared Andy is, she decides to stick to her guns, get the job, stay with it for a year, and hopefully it will open new doors for her. 

Her interview is perhaps the best scene in the film.   When she arrives Miranda is not in her office when she does arrive the fashion offices throws themselves into preparing for her arrival like the Queen of England was coming.  When she arrives she listens to Andy.  “I just graduated from Northwestern," she explains, "and I was editor of the Daily Northwestern.” “The details of your incompetence do not interest me,” Miranda dryly responds.  Soon, Miranda turns to her number one girl, Emily (Emily Blunt, in the film’s second decent performance) and tells her, “Hire the fat, smart girl.”

Andy predictably has no idea what she has gotten herself into.  Working for Miranda is – in essence – like being a 24/7 butler.  Her daily demands of Andy are astronomically crazy.  She flies into the office, literally throws her hat and coat at her face, and makes outlandish requests like, “Find me that piece of paper I had in my hand yesterday morning” or – at one point – "get me two copies of the new HARRY POTTER book."  No problem, says Andy, but when she discovers that Miranda meant the unpublished manuscript for the book that has not even been published yet and she wants it in a few hours or she’ll be fired, she begins to realize that she is literally working for a devil in heels.

Andy’s home life and friends offer her solace.  Her boyfriend Nate (ENTOURAGE’S Adrain Grenier) listens to Andy’s daily diatribes about the stresses and demands of working for a monster.  She carries a cell phone every minute and is often interrupted during the most intimate moments to fetch the most needless items for her boss.  Nate can’t understand why she does not quit, and her growing indifference to quitting her job creates a riff between the two.  To make matters worse, Andy slowly – shock of all shocks! – begins to pamper herself up and become the very thing she thought she hated.  With the help an office designer named Nigel (the always funny Stanley Tucci), Andy pretties herself up and starts looking like she just came off the runway.  The problem is that Andy is – amazingly – too large to fit most of Nigel’s clothes that he has at his disposal.  She is a size six.  Nigel, trying to motivate her, says, “Six is the new fourteen.”

Andy soon becomes more and more entrenched with her job and gets so good at it that – my God! – she will surpass Emily in her position.  Emily eats, drinks, and sleeps her job.  She can't wait to go on special assignment in Paris (she amusingly states that, “I'm on this new diet for Paris. I don't eat anything until I feel like I'm about to faint, then I eat a cube of cheese. I'm one stomach flu away from reaching my goal weight”).  However, when Emily gets too sick to follow Miranda there ( she gets what she calls an “incubus or viral plague”), Miranda then forces Andy to break the dastardly news to Emily that she will be replaced by her, knowing full well that it’ll break her heart.  Oh my, the ethical choices one has to make for the sake of a job.

You may have noticed a sly level of sarcasm in my review, and it’s more than intentional.  THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA parades around from one routine plot point to the next with such a numbing inevitability.  The film is essentially a broadly spun morality play that becomes as superficial as Miranda’s wardrobe.  Andy’s developing self-actualization that – holy Hanna – she works for a horrible person and that she is also becoming a horrible person – is dull and tedious.  Because of this, the film never really develops any decent forward momentum because the viewer knows precisely where it’s heading.  There is not one surprising development in the film.  Even more blatantly telegraphed is a tertiary character played by Simon Baker, a power player in the industry that – you just know – will be able to get that HARRY POTTER manuscript for Anne, make her fall for him, and allow her journey to the Dark Side of the fashion Force complete. 

Again...Yawn.

I guess my review thus far has been one big proof to show that one virtuoso, standout performance can’t save a film with a lackluster and formulaic screenplay.  Meryl Streep’s scenery-chewing performance as a fashion boss without any discernable heart of gold dominates every minute of the film that she occupies.  If anything, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is on remarkably solid footing whenever she’s on screen.  Framed around her intoxicatingly vile performance is a cautionary tale of how absolute power corrupts absolutely and one woman’s journey to realizing that – yikes – she just doesn't want to be a Valentino-garbed lap rat for a trendy and posh fashion empire.  If for only one reason, see THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA to watch Streep march around in her tour-de-force portrayal of a deliciously amoral figurehead.  As for the film’s lightweight and laughably limp story of how the cutthroat, back stabbing fashion world eats up unassuming prey?  Well…let's just say that the film needs a large makeover.

 

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