It’s hard not to love The Devil Wears Prada. It’s an excellent movie. According to the New York Times review:
No man is a hero to his valet. So the saying goes, or used to go, since few men these days actually have valets. But a great many people, men and women alike, heroic at least in their own estimation, have assistants, who scurry after coffee and dry cleaning, endure bursts of foul temper, bask in tiny glimmers of generosity and dream, for long hours at low wages, of revenge. For the legions who have suffered the caprice and cruelty of a tyrannical boss, “The Devil Wears Prada,” Lauren Weisberger’s best-selling roman à clef about a bright young woman’s brief period of servitude at a fashion magazine, provides the satisfaction of vicarious payback. Its portrait of Miranda Priestly, the imperious editor of a glossy rag called Runway, is a collage of unforgiven slights and unforgotten grudges, glued to the page with pure, righteous venom.
Ms. Weisberger’s moral was simple, and hard to dispute: Nobody, however glamorous, successful or celebrated, has the right to treat another person the way Miranda treats her assistants, in particular the narrator, an eager Ivy Leaguer named Andy (short for Andrea) Sachs. But now that “The Devil Wears Prada” is a movie, starring Anne Hathaway as Andy, the lesson is not quite so unambiguous.
I will leave the business of point-by-point comparison to scholars, who will duly note that the screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, and the director, David Frankel, have reimagined a few characters, discarded some plot developments and implanted others, and switched Andy’s alma mater from Brown to Northwestern. When these specialists convene a learned panel to discuss their findings, a vigorous debate is likely to emerge. Does the movie, especially in the way it imagines Miranda, betray the novel or correct it?
The literary Miranda is a monster. Ms. Weisberger, restricting herself to Andy’s point of view and no doubt giving voice to her own loathing of the real-life editor on whom Miranda is modeled, resisted the temptation to make her villain a complex (or even a terribly interesting) character. But the screen Miranda is played by Meryl Streep, an actress who carries nuance in her every pore, and who endows even her lighthearted comic roles with a rich implication of inner life. With her silver hair and pale skin, her whispery diction as perfect as her posture, Ms. Streep’s Miranda inspires both terror and a measure of awe. No longer simply the incarnation of evil, she is now a vision of aristocratic, purposeful and surprisingly human grace.
And the movie, while noting that she can be sadistic, inconsiderate and manipulative, is unmistakably on Miranda’s side. How, really, could it be otherwise? In Hollywood, for one thing, an abused assistant is, like a Toyota Prius, an indispensable accessory — an entitlement, really — for anyone who even wants to seem powerful.
And while the film makes some gestures of sympathy toward the underlings, it does not stray too far into class-conscious hypocrisy. Quite the contrary. It is a movie unapologetically, or maybe semi-apologetically, fascinated with power. The worlds of high fashion and slick journalism, a convenient backdrop for Ms. Weisberger’s Gothic fable of captive innocence, are here held up for knowing, fetishistic delectation.
In this version the vicarious thrill is not payback but rather conspicuous consumption: all those lovingly photographed outfits and accessories, those warehouses’ worth of Chanel and Jimmy Choo, those skinny women decked out (by the tirelessly inventive Patricia Field) in expensive finery. “The Devil Wears Prada” does exactly what the real-life counterparts of Runway magazine do every month, which is to deliver the most sumptuous goods imaginable — or fantasy images of them, in any case — to the eager eyes of the masses.
And why not? Mr. Frankel, who directed many episodes of “Sex and the City” (and who is a son of Max Frankel, a former executive editor of The New York Times), knows just how to infuse a spectacle of refinement and exclusivity with a feeling of democratic good cheer. He and Ms. McKenna also know how to mock without sneering, and how to acknowledge that fashion is a serious business without taking it too seriously.
Several carefully staged, pointedly written scenes defend Miranda on feminist grounds. Other moments reveal her vulnerability, and she occasionally takes time from her daily routine of spreading fear and anxiety wherever she goes to extend meaningful and sympathetic glances in Andy’s direction. She also explains that while her kingdom of couture may seem like a shallow and trivial place, it is also a domain where power, money and art commingle to influence the choices and aspirations of women everywhere.
Andy may think that her drab blue cable-knit sweater is an emblem of virtue, a sign that she can’t be bothered with the superficial obsessions that drive Runway, but Miranda insists otherwise, and the movie supports her view. Further tributes to Miranda’s genius — and to the glorious tradition of journalism she represents — are offered by Nigel (Stanley Tucci), her loyal lieutenant, who becomes Andy’s friend and protector.
That awful sweater is soon replaced by a series of glorious ensembles presented in one of many swirling, breathless montage sequences, all of which drive home the point that fabulous clothes are, well, fabulous. And who will argue? A few people try, notably Andy’s boyfriend, Nate (Adrian Grenier), an aspiring chef who mopes into view every now and then to remind her that she’s losing sight of the things that really matter. Tell it to Gourmet, pal.
Mr. Grenier, who effortlessly incarnates the shallow hedonism of the celebrity culture every Sunday night on “Entourage,” is maybe not the best guy to be giving lectures about the ultimate hollowness of fashion and fame. And in any case Nate doesn’t seem to mind the sexy lingerie that Andy brings home from the office.
The scenes in which Andy is warned that she is straying from her down-to-earth, nice-girl values are flimsy to the point of insincerity. And Ms. Hathaway, even made over with shiny bangs, flawless makeup and toe-squeezing footwear, is nowhere near as interesting to watch as Mr. Tucci, who has never been better, or Ms. Streep, whose perfectionism has rarely seemed so apt. Nor, for that matter, does Ms. Hathaway hold the screen against Emily Blunt, the British actress (“My Summer of Love”) whose portrayal of Emily, Miranda’s senior minion and Andy’s office rival, is a minor tour de force of smiling hostility.
Ms. Hathaway shakes off her blandness only toward the end, when, in a climactic trip to Paris, Andy is drawn perilously close to her boss’s chilly flame, and where her intermittent flirtation with a rakish magazine writer (Simon Baker) gathers steam. But for most of the movie Andy is a cipher, whose function is to bring us closer to Miranda, the devil we are, after all, dying to know. In the movies no valet can be a hero. And in “The Devil Wears Prada,” it turns out, vengeance belongs to Miranda Priestly.