The Devil Wears Prada (review)

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The Devil I Know…

The thing that I know is gonna drive me crazy about listening to moviegoers talk about The Devil Wears Prada — and folks will be raving — is that they will be under the mistaken impression that this is farce, satire, exaggeration. Surely, they will say, no boss could be so hideous, no coworkers could be so heartless, no place of employment could be so demeaning… Oh, maybe an Indonesian sweatshop in which eight-year-old crippled orphans produce $200 Nike sneakers for ten cents a day. But not, surely, the pinnacle of New York magazine publishing, which everyone “knows” is extremely glamorous. C’mon (these people will say), it’s like Seinfeld, right? It’s a parody of New York life.

So I’ll say this, as a lifelong New Yorker who has worked in New York publishing (though mostly as a freelancer) for almost twenty years: Ha! I never could find Seinfeld all that funny because it looked too much like my regular, daily life in the Big Apple. When I told a far-outside-of-New-York friend that the Soup Nazi was real, and that I used to get lunch from him all the time long before he turned up on TV, she refused to believe me. (The sitcom’s depiction of “the Soup Man” is pretty darn accurate — my, yup, publishing coworkers and I lived in fear of not following the correct procedure for ordering or paying, the penalty for which was withholding of the piece of chocolate or fruit that was supposed to be included with the soup. Which you would never know was withheld until you got back to the office and unpacked your lunch. The soup was, by the way, some of the best damn soup I’ve ever had.)
The terror of the Soup Man and his chocolate-withholding ways, though, has nothing on, ahem, “Miranda Priestly,” the legendary queen bitch editor in chief of, ahem, Runway magazine, fashion bible of fashion bibles. Lauren Weisberger, who wrote the novel of the same name upon which The Devil Wears Prada is based, denies that Miranda is a stand-in for legendary queen bitch Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue magazine, but Weisberger was Wintour’s assistant for a spell, and the heroine of Prada is Andy Sachs, Miranda’s new junior assistant, so you make the call. I never worked for Wintour, or anywhere near her realm, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the Miranda depiction like I can for the Soup Nazi’s, but I’ll tell you this: When frumpy and proud of it Andy calls all the stuck-up, anorexic, clicquish fashionistas who work at Runway “clackers,” for the annoying sound their stilettos make on the cold hard office floors, she’s found a very generous euphemism for what they’re really called in NYC media circles: Conde Nasties, after Conde Nast, the company that publishes Vogue and a slew of other slick books.

“Books” is mag jargon for “magazines,” see. It takes too much effort to say that many syllables when you’re subsisting on 400 calories per day, as the Nasties– er, “clackers” do, with most of those calories coming from cosmopolitans or chocolate martinis at fashion parties. And that does sound pretty glamorous, doesn’t it? I mean the parties with their expensive cocktails, not the self-starvation. The deliciously mean and yet not totally heartless Prada makes an excellent show of demonstrating how even a happily cute preppie like Andy (Anne Hathaway [Brokeback Mountain, Hoodwinked], who’s much more appealing a performer in grownup roles like this one than she ever was as a kiddie princess) might get seduced into the shallow, selfish world of “clackers.” And the fairly predictable spiral Andy descends over the course of the film, selling herself out and alienating her charming boyfriend, Nate (Entourage’s Adrian Grenier) — who, as a perpetually unshaven chef at a cheerfully neighborhoody Downtown restaurant, manages to be fashionably unfashionable himself — is, for all its inevitability, beautifully played and more than a tad touching. Not for the least which reason that it’s rare to see this kind of dynamic — workplace mentor and mentee — when it’s women in the roles. Movies about professional women are so frequently not about their work — their jobs are merely window-dressing for romance stories. Here, though, it’s about women making their way in a world where it isn’t the prejudices of men holding them back but mostly just the usual bullshit that everyone striving to build or maintain a career faces. Women are fully human here, which is less than can be said for most movies about women.

But that’s not what anyone is going to take away from The Devil Wears Prada, and that’s fine, because this is the supreme high point and most wickedly entertaining thing about this flick: Meryl Streep (A Prairie Home Companion, Prime) as Miranda. From the moment she hovers onto the screen — like, oh, the Wicked Witch in Snow White, pure seduction and pure evil all wrapped up in a fabulous wardrobe — Streep makes Miranda instantly one of the classic, iconic Hollywood villains. Streep doesn’t scream — she whispers, figuratively and literally. She forces you to lean in to appreciate her, forces an intimacy that you cannot extricate yourself from… we are drawn right along with Andy into her orbit, from which it is, of course, almost impossible to extricate yourself. Ooo, she’s a nightmare to make your blood boil, with her impossible demands, and there are moments when you want to scream at Andy — who clings to this job believing, and probably rightly so, that it will be her ticket to any job in publishing, like a position at The New Yorker — to just freakin’ quit already! Tell off Miranda and storm out of there! (God, just the secondhand catharsis would feel so good!)

But Streep’s Miranda is never a caricature. And if you don’t believe that, I hear the new high-tech Conde Nast headquarters building in Times Square is for sale, cheap.

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Sherry Fraley
Fri, Jul 14, 2006 6:16am

Having no clue about the realities of the fashion industry world except what comes across in mainstream media, I did wonder if there was some exaggeration, and maybe a lot. As you say, the movie still works that way. I do remember hearing somewhere that Miranda Priestly was modeled on the editor of Vogue and thus it was difficult to find designers who would agree to have their fashion pieces or names in the movie. Interesting. For me, it’s a matter to wonder on, how the power-wielders of the human race actually seem to thrive on the stress level they live in, and how they don’t seem to mind that their friendships are based on fear (sort of like a lot of people’s relationship with their god).
Meryl Streep’s star sure is shining bright again these days, and Hathaway is coming along very nicely; but Emily Blunt in her role as Emily, the first assistant, ended up being one of the most entertaining facets for me. To see Emily go from a monster high servant with a flawless facade to a snotty-nozed pedestrian accident scarfing down pudding cups in a hospital gown was part of the comedic and emotional well-roundedness of this film.