Friday Film Focus: The Devil Wears Prada

Everyone knows that Meryl Streep is the goddess of drama. However, she never gets enough credit for her comedy skills. This misconception changed with The Devil Wears Prada, a sinfully funny take on the 2003 best seller by Lauren Weisberger. To this day, the author denies writing it as a poison-pen letter to her former boss, Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

The film takes place in a glamorous version of New York City. It has a pop-filled soundtrack and a bright, colorful visual palette. The film features not only a big makeover sequence, but also three separate fashion montages. Costume designer Patricia Field stretched a $100,000 budget into $1 million of designer clothes by calling in every favor she had in the industry. She ended up earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination — a rarity for a contemporary-set film. Director David Frankel and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna pushed the film in a different direction than that of Weisberger’s book, making it a funny but also an emotionally honest portrait of two women in two very different stages of life.

Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is just starting her career as an assistant at Runway magazine. Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is at the peak of hers as its longtime editor-in-chief. The names have been changed, of course, to avoid lawsuits. Stepping up to the plate as imperious fashion editor Priestly, Streep knocks every laugh out of the park. More remarkably, she humanizes a character who was little more than a b*tch in Manolos on the page. Andy — a journalism major at Northwestern — had her eye on The New Yorker. She’s told that if she can run the gantlet of Miranda for a year, there is no publishing Mount Everest she can’t climb. She’s eager to please and be praised, and fairly naïve about the way the business world actually works.

The detailed depiction of Andy’s early job struggles (anyone who’s ever worked an office job can relate to the anxiety of answering your first phone call) help ground the film’s more stylized exploration of the fashion industry.  Streep played a big role in shaping the tone of the film, and getting her attached to the project was a big casting coup. It was one that only happened supposedly after she re-negotiated Fox’s initial low-balled salary offer. In addition to crafting Miranda’s look and voice, Streep also pushed for even more emotional realism. She requested a moment in which Miranda appeared “unpeeled,” without the armor of her clothes and makeup, which comes when she briefly opens up to Andy about her impending divorce.

Streep manages the formidable task of giving her capricious tyrant some humanity without diluting her essential awfulness. Speaking in a soft, almost seductive monotone, she tears strips out of her assistants and withers unlucky editors with a glance. All the while, she retains a strange, charismatic hold over all around her. Soon, her influence begins to warp her newest assistant. Before you can say “makeover,” Andy is transformed from a gawky giraffe into a swan who can trade up in lovers. She goes from sweet chef Nate (Adrian Grenier) to literary stud (Simon Baker). Andy also upgrades in clothing from cotton blends to chicest of Valentino, Chanel, Donna Karan, Bill Blass, Galliano and Prada.

Nate is meant to serve as a marker of just how far Andy has drifted away from who she used to be. But because Andy never actually seems to change for the worse, Nate’s complaints mostly come across as him whining about her missing his birthday party. The Devil Wears Prada cares first and foremost about its central trio of women — which includes Emily Charlton (Emily Blunt). Emily is Miranda’s fashion-obsessed “first assistant” who reluctantly takes Andy under her wing. The Nate/Andy stuff never feels all that emotional, but the film wrings some real pathos out of the ups and downs of Emily and Andy’s complex friendship.

In what was her first Hollywood role, Blunt almost manages to steal the film from Streep at times, which is pretty damn impressive. The ever-dependable Stanley Tucci injects charm into an underwritten part as the very camp and extremely shrewd art editor Nigel. Frankel makes expert use of the light touch he brought to HBO’s Entourage and Sex and the City. McKenna leeches out the book’s malice in favor of wicked sass.

Does the movie bite the fashion hand that feeds it? You bet. But it also pays due respect to the artful details turning the wheels of an industry that only seems frivolous. From New York high society to Paris Fashion Week, the combination of low comedy and high fashion works beautifully. There’s no doubt Andy learns much from watching Miranda at work, even with all the insults and errands. The film ends with Miranda and Andy as neither friends nor enemies — but simply two women who respect the fact that they want very different things in life.

The film walks a fascinating line between admiring Miranda and criticizing her. The script itself tries to paint her into a corner as the lonely careerist who can’t keep a husband or find happiness. With that said, Streep is too smart to wallow in the cliches of being a victim. In a party of a movie, her performance is a comic and dramatic tour de force.