The Devil Wears Prada is the first classy, elegant and really entertaining film of 2006. It’s about the phony, pretentious, insanely overpriced, death-rattle world of what is laughably called fashion, and the magazines that market what’s left of it to a fan base of gullible consumers who can’t afford it and don’t need it in the first place. It’s also about the gridlock of usually pretty and always competitive girls who would cut your throat for the opportunity to earn poverty-level wages as editorial assistants at a catalog-sized magazine like Vogue. I saw the movie with Ali MacGraw, whose first job in New York was as assistant to the late, terminally eccentric Diana Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar. She labeled it “a documentary.”
I don’t know about that. All I ever did was put in some time as the movie critic for Vogue. But I leave it up to the People Who Know Things, and Lauren Weisberger, author of the phenomenally best-selling book from which this movie has been adapted, is a fashion-magazine survivor who took notes. The result is a movie about a magazine called Runway and its chic, powerful, vicious, cold, ruthless and subhuman editor, Miranda Priestley, played with electrifying control-freak relish by Meryl Streep. Despite the diplomatic denials of everyone involved, Runway is Vogue, and Ms. Streep is Anna Wintour. I don’t know her, but if she’s anything like this, Anna Wintour and the Spanish Inquisition were made for each other.
The other star is Anne Hathaway, always lovely but sometimes bland, in a career-defining role as Andy Sachs, a recent Northwestern journalism graduate who arrives in New York to be a serious writer and ends up joining the disillusioned crew of desperate, underpaid vassals who sacrifice their I.Q.’s, integrity and personal lives to work for prestige and perks at Runway. If they fetch enough Starbucks lattes and Hermès scarves and endure enough insults, they get to rub elbows with the most superficial people in town.
Andy has no style or sense of fashion, but she’s smart and learns fast, and out of pity Nigel, the magazine’s swishy art director (a plum assignment for Stanley Tucci), plays Fairy Godmother, treating her to a “makeover.” The oddest thing about Andy is her refusal to be defeated by her boss’ ego-deflating sarcasm and ridicule, and the oddest thing about the movie is that in the early scenes, when she first arrives at Runway wearing cable-knit Gap crewnecks, pleated paid skirts and wool stockings, she looks more appealing than she does in the later scenes, wearing Blahnik stilettos and thigh-high leather Chanel boots in ugly coifs, and kohl mascara that resembles a raccoon on Ritalin. Like Diana Vreeland, who used to coin such quotable but pointless phrases as “Pink is the navy blue of India,” Miranda Priestly declares that “2 is the new 4, 0 is the new 2” and chucks a layout, asking: “Aren’t there any lovely, slender female paratroopers?” Andy is a size 6, which is the new 6, but she plunges on: She starves herself into Saint-Laurent and Donna Karan, learns how to spell and pronounce “Patrick Demarchelier,” bows to Dolce & Gabbana, takes messages from “Isaac” and “Donatella,” and tries to please a woman who thinks she parted the Red Sea after changing it to cerulean blue.
Miranda isn’t happy unless everyone around her is panicked, nauseous or suicidal; she has only been seen smiling one time, at Tom Ford in 2001. At home, Andy alienates her family, her boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) and her friends, despite handing out lavish presents from the accessory department like python headbands, $1,100 Bang and Olufsen phones and $1,900 Marc Jacobs handbags. But at work, she surrenders her nerves to her job, stressing out 24/7 with challenges above and beyond the call of civilized duty. Typical crisis: to locate and make three copies of the unpublished manuscript of the next Harry Potter book before 4 p.m. or you’re fired! Andy has no options, cautions her snobby, condescending officemate Emily (a camera-conquering performance by British actress Emily Blunt that takes no prisoners), who informs her that the last person in her job made the mistake of cutting her hand open with a letter opener and ended up at TV Guide! As predicted, Andy sells her soul to the devil the day she tries on her first pair of Jimmy Choos.
As the high priestess of a distorted kingdom, Meryl Streep plays a workaholic Demon Seed of fashion with a drama and flamboyance that is terrifying and obnoxious, but also funny and touching—shrink-wrapped in Prada, catching every detail with withering glances at 45-degree angles. Making and breaking careers with one nod, Ms. Streep can touch a couture gown with disapproval, and shreds of yarn fall to the floor like splinters. She can be cruel, impossible and self-absorbed, but she can show vulnerability too. When her latest neglected trophy husband (James Naughton) humiliates her by filing for divorce, we get a rare glimpse of Miranda wilted and without makeup in a hotel bathrobe, wiping a tear from her eye. The next minute, she’s reinvented herself, snapping, “Rupert Murdoch should cut me a check for all the papers I sell for him.” It’s the blend of so many qualities that keeps Ms. Streep at the center of the film, ghoulish and glorious. Kay Thompson played the same kind of obsessive fashion dictator in Funny Face with even more “bazazz” (her takeoff on Diana Vreeland singing “Think Pink” is legendary), but Ms. Streep is a triumph of her own making.
To be honest, nothing about The Devil Wears Prada holds a candle to Funny Face, Stanley Donen’s 1957 masterpiece, which it emulates in many ways and wants desperately to be. ( Funny Face is, in fact, a check-list role model for this movie, whether its creators realize it or not.) The Devil Wears Prada wasn’t designed by Richard Avedon or produced by Arthur Freed, its haute couture cannot compare with Givenchy, and it doesn’t have a score by George and Ira Gershwin. Ms. Hathaway is adorable, but if Ms. Streep is no Kay Thompson, her co-star is no Audrey Hepburn. She doesn’t fall in love with the world’s most famous fashion photographer, played by the world’s most elegant man, Fred Astaire, but she does get to Paris Fashion Week, where she sleeps with the handsome writer (Simon Baker) who saved her swan neck by swiping the unpublished Harry Potter manuscript. Disappointingly, by the time Andy sees the light, gets her priorities straight, learns the meaning of treachery, deception and backstabbing, and tosses her cell phone into the fountain at the Place de la Concorde, her sudden moral insight is not entirely plausible. How do you explain to a Vogue subscriber that there’s more to life than Fendi and make it stick?
Still, I enjoyed this movie immensely. It lacks the beauty, glamour and compositional balance of Funny Face, but if there’s a name or a product in fashion to be dropped, Aline Brosh McKenna’s colorful screenplay drops them all, while director David Frankel puts to good use what he learned about putting women all over the screen at the same time in Sex and the City. You get the fashion models, fashion designers, fashion hysterics, fashion politics, fashion wars and fashion events at the Metropolitan Museum. And you get the keyhole view of a dying industry where today’s fashion victims become tomorrow’s fashion cops—and vice versa.
Lost in Spacey
Superman Returns, the fifth and noisiest in the DC Comics franchise, doesn’t make a word of sense. Silly as it is, that tiny deterrent shouldn’t stand in its way of achieving summer-blockbuster status. The movie is nothing but special effects, but in two and a half hours of incomprehensible tedium, even when I found myself dozing off, it was better than a single unwatchable frame of Jack Black in Nacho Libre. This time, astronomers discover the remains of the dead planet Krypton, and Superman goes back to search for traces of his childhood home. Finding nothing there but the voice of Marlon Brando, he returns to Metropolis, dons his horn-rim glasses, turns back into mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent and gets his old job back at the Daily Planet. Behind his back, his criminal nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) got out of prison on a technicality (for two consecutive life sentences?) and somehow managed to get to the crystal galaxy (in a helicopter, yet!) to collect the Kryptonite that can destroy Superman.
To Clark’s surprise, Daily Planet editor Perry White (now played by Frank Langella) has replaced him with a new star reporter, his handsome nephew Richard (über-hunk James Marsden), who has become the fiancé of Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who won the Pulitzer Prize for an article called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” and gave birth to a son. The 5-year-old sends a grand piano flying across the room with a touch of his pinkie—and if you have any doubts who his real daddy is, your free pass to the next action-hero comic-book convention has just been revoked.
Moving right along, arch-fiend Lex Luthor hatches a diabolical plan to use those Krypton crystals in some kind of indescribably vague “advanced alien technology” to destroy America and thereby force the rest of the world to beg for land and space, making him the world’s richest nutcase. Ah, the magic of that green Kryptonite, which looks like a broken ginger-ale bottle. It destroys Superman’s power and renders him limp as a wet willy, so now it’s up to Lois to rescue the injured crusader from an underwater grave by diving into the ocean (in an evening dress!) and then kiss him back to life like Sleeping Beauty.
As the Man of Steel, wooden newcomer Brandon Routh, making his movie debut, was obviously chosen not for his talent, but because he looks awesomely like Christopher Reeve. In a variety of corny wigs, Kevin Spacey has fun sending up comic-book villainy, torturing the captured Lois and cynically snarling, “Pulitzer Prizes are like Academy Awards—nobody remembers what you got one for!” The hopeless Parker Posey poses blankly as his idiot girlfriend, with none of the sexy joy that made Valerie Perrine so memorable in Superman II. The film’s biggest surprise: three brief guest appearances by the great Eva Marie Saint as Clark’s adoptive mother in Kansas, and by Noel Neill and Jack Larson, who played the original Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson in the syndicated Superman TV series. Strictly for fans on school vacation.
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