The Devil Is a Dominatrix, But Streep’s No Real Surprise

David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada, from a screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, is loosely based on Lauren Weisberger’s best-selling roman à clef about her demeaning experiences working as an assistant to the editor of a glossy fashion magazine graphically but improbably named Runway. I must report that the movie didn’t make much sense to me from the first reel to the last. Why, for example, would a supposedly serious Northwestern journalism graduate (reportedly a Brown alumna in the book) seek a job as a fashionista’s assistant at a Vogue-like publication? Even if Runway were the only opportunity available, why wouldn’t she apply for a position as assistant to the literary editor? After all, even Vogue fills some of its pages with prose, deathless or not.

Still, for the sake of argument, let us stipulate that an otherwise serious-minded female journalism major is momentarily dazzled by the glamorous glow of the fashion scene. Then why would our heroine wear a defiantly I-don’t-care-what-I-look-like outfit to the job interview, as if to assert that she was a real person far beyond worrying about her surface appearance—which is only about 100 percent of what counts in the fashion world, if not everywhere else as well.

Anyway, Anne Hathaway as the initially iconoclastic ingénue, Andrea (just call her Andy) Sachs, can’t carry off the conceit as well as a younger Julia Roberts or even today’s Jennifer Aniston—to say nothing of Audrey Hepburn, she of the fabulous Cecil Beaton fashion-model figure in Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957) and George Cukor’s My Fair Lady (1964).

Of course, if the girl in question plans from the start to write a tell-all best-selling book about her experiences and then sell it to the movies, all bets are off. Audiences would never approve of the character if that touch of realism were added to the plot; movie heroines can never be so crass. But is Ms. Hathaway’s Andy intended to be the heroine of the piece? Or are we supposed to be enthralled by a lesbian-like intrigue in which Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestley, the Prada-wearing devil of the title, functions as a cartoon dominatrix to her two submissive female flunkies, Emily (Emily Blunt), Andy’s jealous supervisor, and Andy herself, oh so eager to be crushed under Miranda’s heel?

At the very least, the film is laboriously designed as a chick flick in which the male species is clearly subordinated to the female. Andy does sleep with two men in the course of her self-discovery amid the runway scenes in New York and Paris. But what poor specimens of manhood they are: Andy’s regular boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) is a grubby cook who never shaves, even on his birthday (which Andy misses while serving Miranda, thus making Nate sulk fiercely). When Andy decides to have a Parisian fling, it is with a useful contact in fashion publishing, Christian Thompson (Simon Baker), who is immediately exposed as a plotter and a schemer, and insincere besides.

Indeed, the only interesting and articulate male character in the film is Stanley Tucci’s flamboyant Nigel, Miranda’s second-in-command, who serves as an unofficial fashion Pygmalion to Andy’s gauche Galatea, much as Hector Elizondo’s helpful hotel manager did for Julia Roberts’ culturally insecure courtesan in Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990). In the end, however, Nigel finds his unswerving loyalty to Miranda repaid by being first promised, then denied the cushy top slot at a new design company after Miranda decides to put someone else in the slot in order to eliminate one of her chief rivals in the fashion power game. Andy finally—and, I thought, somewhat too belatedly—decides that Miranda’s power games are more than she can bear, and so, despite Miranda’s desire that she stay on, she decides to leave her now-cushy job for a more serious journalistic berth. As a final gesture of moral rehabilitation, Andy donates all the beautiful clothes she got as freebies on her Paris jaunt with Miranda to poor Emily, whom Andy had temporarily displaced in Miranda’s pecking order.

Ms. Streep has received a string of Oscar-worthy quotes from many of the critics, though I am not sure why. She certainly outshines her co-star, Ms. Hathaway, but much of what she is asked to do is so laughably outrageous, in a cardboard kind of way, that I’d think it would be considered too easy for special mention. After all, unalloyed bitchiness is so familiar a phenomenon in the movie world—much less the fashion world—that it would seem to come a little too easily to the inhabitants of either realm.

The biggest problem with the movie, however, is that it tries to make a big deal out of a subject that has been beaten to death in the tab-loids and the media. Mr. Grenier, for example, plays the stellar flame to a retinue of dependent moths in the hit cable show, Entourage. He is much funnier in his mock-unassuming manner in the show than he is pretending to be superior to the fashionistas in The Devil Wears Prada. Hollywood has always been on dangerous ground when it tried to play the integrity card. It would have helped, of course, if Ms. Hathaway had been capable of eliciting genuine oohs and aahs when she materialized one morning with what the movie’s own fashionistas decided was an eye-popping change of wardrobe. She wasn’t, and that’s all she wrote.

Buying In

Terry Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential, from a screenplay by Daniel Clowes, based on his short comic story, has been less well-received than their previous exercise in adolescent alienation, Ghost World (2001). I felt that the latter had been somewhat overrated because it indulged the viewer’s sense of moral superiority over all the hypocritical, materialistic people sitting nearby. It may be that Art School Confidential is less successful because it doesn’t let the viewer off the hook that easily. After all, how many of us have drawn and painted our way to fame and fortune in the contemporary art world?

This is what the young, sensitive, idealistic hero, Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), wants to achieve by attending the Strathmore Academy in New York City. For one thing, he has fallen into a deep, sincere love with a nude picture of Audrey (Sophia Myles), a classroom model on the school’s promotional flier. Poor Jerome is shown to have been a tempting target for bullies from an early age, and hence an unlikely candidate for any kind of careerist rat race. But his family agrees to pay his tuition, and off he goes from his suburban wasteland into the cold heart of the Gotham art world.

His introduction to the Strathmore Academy is far from reassuring. His vicariously beloved Audrey does pose nude for his class, but she clearly prefers the company of the jock-like Jonah (Matt Keeslar), who also impresses the students and faculty with his polished but retrogressive drawings. It’s as if he has never heard of Picasso, who just happens to be Jerome’s patron saint.

American movies have never been comfortable with artists and the circles they inhabit. At the very least, the makers of Art School Confidential should be congratulated for not having their characters prattle endlessly about “integrity” and “not selling out.” As Jerome and his classmates learn very quickly from the world-weary Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich), the problem is never “selling out,” but learning how to “buy in.” Making it is all that matters. How you do it is nobody’s business but your own, and if you have to kiss people’s posteriors to get there, just wet your lips and pucker up.

Curiously, this relentlessly cynical tone turns out sounding refreshingly original compared to the usual pieties in the genre. Jerome fails miserably at first, despite his being more talented than anyone in the class, including Professor Sandiford. It is only when he begins cheating and stealing others’ work that he starts getting the attention that invariably leads to success. Along the way, he becomes the prime suspect in a series of stranglings of Strathmore co-eds, but this is a small price to pay for fame and fortune.

Unsurprisingly, Jerome ends up completely cynical about the art scene and his place in it. But he has had wise mentors in Professor Sandiford and a washed-up Strathmore graduate named Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), who dies in a fire started by Jerome’s carelessness with a cigarette. That is the kind of world Jerome has entered and contemptuously conquered. It is a world in which catastrophes are commonplace, and true talent is not properly appraised.

Though the murders are never solved on-screen, we are left with a pretty clear idea of the murderer’s identity. Some reviews criticized the filmmakers for taking such a light, flippant tone toward the killings, as if these crimes had been a central concern of the film instead of morbid MacGuffins employed as ironic counterpoint to the life-and-death struggle for survival engaged in by all the artists.

Mr. Minghella is the son of top-drawer director Anthony Minghella. He gives about as competently straight a performance as anyone could with such a farcical character, and Sophia Myles didn’t strike me as entirely as hopeless an actress as many reviewers said she was. I thought she projected an aura of seriousness and intelligence with her clothes on, and with her clothes off, she was more than adequate as the stuff Jerome’s dreams were made of.

Still, the most stinging performances in the film are provided by Mr. Broadbent and Mr. Malkovich, though Joel David Moore, Ethan Suplee and Nick Swardson are not far behind as Jerome’s irreverently wise-cracking classmates. It is nice to see Anjelica Huston again, even in a tiny role with a more positive spin than the rest of the film.

The Big Man

The Museum of the Moving Image (35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria, Queens) is doing itself proud with a 24-film retrospective of the marvelously vibrant oeuvre of Frank Borzage (1893-1962). Borzage was, even in Hollywood, that rarity of rarities, an uncompromising romanticist. In his time, Anglo-American film historians generally underrated him on the facile Marxist assumption that the director’s romanticism was a commercially motivated betrayal of realism. Yet the way of the romanticist is usually much harder than that of the realist. Still, Borzage never needed dream worlds for his suspensions of disbelief: He plunged into the real world of poverty and oppression, the world of Roosevelt and Hitler, the New Deal and the New Order, to impart an aura to his characters, not merely through soft focus and a fluid camera, but through a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.

His anti-Nazi films— Little Man, What Now? (1934) and Three Comrades (1938)—were far ahead of their time, emotionally and politically. Borzage’s objection to Hitler was a curious one: What Hitler and all tyrants represented was an invasion of the emotional privacy of individuals, particularly lovers, those blessed creatures gifted with luminous rapport. History Is Made at Night (1937) is not only the most romantic title in the history of the cinema but also a profound expression of his commitment to love over probability. Borzage’s cinema is typified by his extraordinary treatment of Janet Gaynor and Margaret Sullavan, actresses with screen personalities molded by the director. Jean Arthur and Gail Russell fit into the Borzage tradition on their first and only tries, and Borzage’s actors—notably Spencer Tracy, Charles Boyer and James Stewart—were made to discard Hollywood’s traditionally superficial attitudes toward love. Many of Borzage’s projects, particularly toward the end of his career, were indisputably trivial in conception, but the director’s passion never faltered, and when the glorious opportunity of Moonrise (1948) presented itself, Borzage was not stale or jaded.

The AMMI’s series begins on July 15 at 2 p.m. with Lucky Star (1929), rediscovered long after it was thought to be lost. Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell star in this imported 35-millimeter restored print from Netherlands Filmmuseum.

Moonrise (1948), with Dane Clark and Gail Russell, follows on Saturday, July 15, at 4:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 16, at 6:30 p.m.

History Is Made at Night (1937) plays on Saturday, July 15, at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 30, at 4:30 p.m.

A Man’s Castle (1933), a Depression classic, with Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young, plays on July 16, at 2:00 p.m.

The Mortal Storm (1940), with Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, arrives on July 16, at 4:30 p.m.

The series runs through Sunday, Aug. 20.