Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Devil Wears Prada Movie Review

The Devil Wears Prada is one of those Hollywood productions based on a best-selling novel, cast with big name movie stars, filled out with great production values, all in service to a lifeless script.

The screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna is based on the novel (unread by me) by Lauren Weisberger. The basic plot is thus: fresh-faced college graduate Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) seeks idealized position writing articles for a publication such as The New Yorker (it seems no one told Andy that in 2006, print publications were going the way of crank-start cars and anyway, big-time magazines generally don’t hire inexperienced 22-year olds as writers). She gets a (sort-of) lucky break getting hired as the junior assistant to Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep), a fashion maven and editor-in-chief of Runway fashion magazine. It’s a job “a million girls would kill for” and if Andy can last a year she’ll have her pick of great magazine jobs.

The catch is that the demands of being personal assistant to Miranda Priestley would be enough to drive the most patient of people to the brink of murder. Miranda seems to take pleasure in the failures of her previous assistants. She demands the impossible and then excoriates them for being stupid or incapable. There is no way to be successful in such a position because for every task Andy succeeds at, the goalposts are reset and a newer, more challenging one is asked. It also doesn’t help that Andy has no fashion sense (according to everyone already working at Runway) when she begins her job. In truth, she just doesn’t subscribe to the latest in expensive fashion trends – at first.

Director David Frankel does a fine job keeping up the pace of the film, throwing in just enough snappy flourishes to make it interesting, but not so quirky as to fend off the mass audience. The faults lie primarily with the source material and McKenna’s screenplay, which is so feckless as to render the entire project pointless. Anyway, this subject matter was plumbed to the depths in the 1996 black comedy Swimming with Sharks in which Frank Whaley played the put-upon assistant to Kevin Spacey’s Hollywood movie executive.

For a film that wants to take a stand against the kind of values that people like Miranda Priestley and her senior assistant, Emily Chalton (Emily Blunt), represent, namely the idea that a person isn’t worth paying attention to unless they tuned into the hot fashions of the moment, it certainly takes an obscene amount of pleasure in displaying lots of hot fashion. If it wanted to stay true to its philosophy, it wouldn’t take such glee in the sequence when Nigel helps Andy convert herself from a bargain bin pauper to a designer-wearing princess.

As best as I can glean from a summary of Weisberger’s novel, the film holds true to the basic premise, but streamlines a lot of the secondary characters, and then excises the more nasty elements of the story. The ethical decisions that Andy faces and makes in the movie seem to be far less damning than those in the book. In McKenna’s version, the Big Character Change for Andy occurs when she steps over Emily to take a trip to Paris with Miranda for Fashion Week. McKenna wants this choice to push the audience just to the brink of siding against Andy, but it’s far too flimsy. Emily gets sick and Miranda chooses Andy to go in her place. When Andy balks, Miranda reminds her of the prize at the end of the game and Andy relents. This is somehow supposed to be a stinging indictment of career advancement and just in case you don’t catch it, Miranda reminds Andy (and us) when she does something similar, but on a much higher and more cynical level and at the expense of Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who has put in 20 long thankless years in his position at the magazine.

The acting is best from the three main characters in the Runway world: Streep (for which she received her fourteenth Oscar nomination and twelfth for lead actress, tying Katharine Hepburn’s record); Stanley Tucci, wonderful in everything he touches, and here making a real character out of what could easily have been a camp performance in the hands of a lesser actor; and Emily Blunt who, despite playing a nearly irredeemable character, manages to find something a bit deeper beyond the clich├ęd role she’s playing. Hathaway does her best, but Andy is nearly the least interesting character in the film, excepting her boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) and two friends, Lily (Tracie Thoms) and Doug (Rich Sommer).

McKenna toys oh so briefly with potentially tantalizing subject matter. After Miranda (and Streep as an actress) is given her Moment of Vulnerability and opens up to Andy about the difficulties of being a woman in a position of power, there is a brief exchange between Andy and her friends suggesting that if Miranda were a man she wouldn’t be demonized for her strong and difficult character, but would be praised for decisiveness and strength. But then the film remembers that Hollywood has a quota for the amount of dialogue that can be devoted to ideas before you risk alienating the large portion of your audience that prefers not to use their brains (or is it that Hollywood panders to what is actually a small percentage, thus conditioning the rest of us to not want to think at the movies?).

If this movie had been made three years later it could have served as a commentary on the treatment of Hillary Clinton in the media during her presidential campaign. Alas, in Hollywood timing is everything.

No comments:

Post a Comment