A newly graduated collegiate, Andrea Sachs, seeks work in New York as a journalist. Her viable options narrow down to being a reporter for Auto World or an executive assistant for the Top Gun of the American fashion magazine industry, the Editor of the ultra-chic Runway, Miranda Priestly. Andrea is seemingly ill-suited for this high-energy, high-profile position by personal taste, personal style, personal interest. Yet, Miranda says to herself, “Go ahead. Take a chance…” and gives Andrea the job.
At work at Runway, Andrea watches all the other employees, mostly young women like – and yet certainly unlike – herself dash to don stilettos lest Miranda see their feet wrapped in comfy slippers; reapply still perfectly applied lipstick; and turn their noses up at wholesome foods in favor of bizarre health-defeating diets. And – at work at Runway – Andrea contends with Miranda’s peremptory demands – muttered, interestingly enough, in a near-monotone of unrelenting strings of sentences barely above a whisper – while she contends with steaks, coats, coffees, phone calls and ill-humor and being addressed by the wrong name.
Then comes the fun. Unexpected flirtation with a famous freelance writer – which her life-long friends and long-time live-with boyfriend might rightly question – outings in glamorous clothes to glamorous do’s; clothes from Designer Heaven (fitting more like clothes from Designer Hell); trips abroad; glamor events on runways. And in the midst of this, Andrea faces the immortal questions of who am I?, what do I want?, what do I not want?, and, at what cost achievement? Miranda, of course, is integral to the necessary understanding of the substance of these questions and to the ultimate discovery of their answers.
This is a terrific story, based on novel by Lauren Weisberger with screenplay written by Aline Brosh McKenna (Laws of Attraction and Three to Tango), having original twists on an age-old coming-into-your-own theme. It is also a new version of the movie Funny Face, from 1957, starring the stunning Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, with Kay Thompson in the role recast for Meryl Streep. In The Devil Wears Prada, Stanley Tucci assumes the revamped role that Fred Astaire had in the original. Ann Hathaway is stunning and winsome enough herself to admirably fill the role previously adorned by Audrey Hepburn. In both versions, a young innocent with firm values and ideals, finds herself thrust, against her better inclinations, into the world of high fashion where she is recut, redesigned and refashioned to fit a world that was not previously her own.
In that new world, the heroine is exposed to new perspectives, new impressions, new points of view, and more than that, new realities behind the commonplace and mundane details of unremarkable daily choices. How will the heroine react to all this? How will sense and order come out of a scramble of new and apparently chaotic exposures?
Ann Hathaway is – as far as I could see – flawless as Andrea. She is believable, amusing, natural, light and unspoiled, and beautiful, particularly when salutes are aimed at Audrey Hepburn. Hathaway showed the pain of conflict that Andrea felt and the difficulty of tough choices Andrea had to make. The character of Andrea was so well built by Hathaway that there is not even a flinch of incredulity at any of Andrea’s spontaneous resolutions, actions and decisions. Hathaway plays Andrea with the perfect mix of drive and genuineness.
Stanley Tucci is the gem adorning this gold-threaded production. His portrayal of Nigel, who is the contemporary version of the Fred Astaire character, is deliciously different from his other performances. is Nigel certainly different from, for example, Frank Dixon in Terminal with Tom Hanks, in which Tucci is the cold- and hard-hearted villain, or Link in Shall We Dance with Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Serandon, in which Tucci is a bashful sort of lawyer with a Tango- and Rumba-related secret. Tucci’s scene with Hathaway, during which they are in Nigel’s photographic studio, is a sensitive reworking of an immortal scene between Astaire and Hepburn. The Tucci touch will make this new, redone scene an immortal addition to Film History, as well.
And The Devil Wears Prada. It’s interesting to note that this title is derived from a news story that was run worldwide (Wall Street Journal) speculating that the Pope Benedict XVI wears Prada, red Prada loafers (the Vatican denies it and Prada declares there is not enough information to confirm or deny). And our beloved Devil (or Dragon Lady) the one and only Meryl Streep, wears Prada or anything else with such panache: Devil or angel, who cares? Devil or angel, she’s Meryl Streep. And Streep puts forth a spine tingling performance of precise perfection. She is flawless as Miranda, and better and better, she is essential as Miranda: She embodies the role and wholly enlivens it. Interestingly enough, Ms. Streep performs better as Miranda Priestly than she does as Yolanda Johnson in A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, which came out earlier this summer.
Part of the reason for this is that Ms. Streep shows the humanity, the inner heart, of the Dragon in several exceptionally well done scenes directed by David Frankel. In an interview with Ethan AAmes, for Cinema Confidential, Ms. Streep says that The Devil Wears Prada is “not instructional, this movie,” but in truth (whether one agrees with Ms. Streep’s assessment or not), Miranda Priestly is an instructional character in Ms. Streep’s hands because of the depth and brilliance of characterization.
The Devil Wears Prada is director David Frankel’s second full length feature film, Miami Rhapsody (Sarah Jessica Parker and Antonio Banderas, 1995) was his first. He spent the years in between the two working on television productions and a couple of shorts. His efforts between these movies must have paid off, because The Devil Wears Prada is darn-near perfect. Once we know that Frankel has a TV background, it is possible to recognize a quick-paced cut-scene-cut-scene TV type of approach to Prada, but – TV influence or not – it works (to borrow an Ebert phrase), in fact, it works to near perfect.
Two technical flaws mar this perfection in Prada. The first is that Miranda’s remark to Andrea, characterizing her as a “smart, fat girl,” goes unchallenged. There is no way a woman as tall as Andrea Sachs/Ann Hathaway, at 5′ 8″, can be called “fat” at a size 6, which is how the screenplay describes Andrea. The second is that, because of over-eager editing, we are surprised by the friendship that has suddenly, and behind our backs, sprung up between Nigel and Andrea. Both these mistakes cause the viewer to pick a quarrel, so to speak, with the film, which, of course, removes the viewer from the fantasy, which always reduces favorable audience reaction to a film.
On the other hand, and in keeping with the perfection of Frankel’s directing, the production design – as varied as the sets were – was also flawless, thanks to Jess Goncher. For instance, elegant settings can easily and erroneously be portrayed as stiff caricatures, as was the case in Two Weeks Notice, in which it was impossible to avoid all the blue and orange variations and juxtapositions. There is never even a hint of anything other than authenticity in the production sets of Prada. Additionally, the cinematography, by Florian Allhallows, is splendid and even breathtaking in places, especially dizzyingly so when Andrea is twirling headily from the effects of that unexpected flirtation. The flirt, Christian Thompson (Simon Baker), and, indeed, all the supporting cast, particularly Emily (Emily Blunt), contribute delightfully to the manic sense of frenzy and moral conflict.
Speaking of moral conflict, that brings us to consideration of what was truly wrong with this movie. Every week there is news of another Hollywood movie star or TV star succumbing to the extremes of bizarre anorexia-influenced diets, or worse yet, to anorexia itself. Look, for example, at the latest concerning the once healthful but now worrisomely gaunt Keira Knightly in her rib-exposing golden Gucci gown. In The Devil Wears Prada, this current social pathology of adoration of the anorexic is lauded by permitting Andrea to yield to its wrongful and wrong-headed influence through the presence of a line in which Hathaway’s character tells Tucci’s that she has reduce from a size 6 down to a size 4. Both size 6 and size 4, on any woman over 5′ 6″, is near skin and bones. The moral outrage of having Andrea capitulate to size 4 is that, with so many luminous stars in Prada (Streep, Tucci, Hathaway), they did not ban together and refuse to idolize that egregious pathological obsession by refusing to permit Andrea to fall under irrational influence and capitulate to an emaciating size 4, especially when size 6 is already angularizingly thin.