If they want a documentary, they can watch the History Channel.
— Patricia Field, New York Times (29 June 2006)
“You sold your soul the first time you put on that pair of Jimmy Choos.” So ascertains Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), editor-in-chief at Runway magazine, disdainful of her self-doubting assistant. And so she summarizes yet another tale of a little girl who finds corruption in the big city.
Here the city is New York and the girl is sweet, slightly frumpy Andy (Anne Hathaway), graduate of Northwestern’s j-school and eager to initiate her career as essay-writer extraordinaire for the New Yorker. Based on Lauren Weisberger’s roman à clef about working for notorious Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, the film makes Andy the unquestionable moral center, and everyone else in need of her good influence. We enter the Runway domain with her, the white marble foyer so chi-chi and the first step off the elevator onto Miranda’s floor so resembling a landing on another planet. Andy, by mortal standards, is gorgeous (she is Anne Hathaway, after all), but to the Miranda Minions, she is “fat” (at size six) and terminally tasteless (prone to poly-blend sweaters and “hideous skirts”). The “clackers,” as Andy calls them, for the sound their stiletto heels make on the floors, wonder out loud what she’s even doing here, in their domain, where an interest in fashion is “crucial.”
Miranda’s arrival, heralded by a flurry of activity (clearing desks, arranging magazines, tossing out half-eaten breakfasts) brings more doom and gloom, as she dismisses Andy with one withering look. Mustering her girly courage, Andy announces, “I know I’m not skinny or glamorous and I don’t know that much about fashion, but I’m a quick study.” She leaves, defeated, and voila!, she’s called back. Moreover, she’s hired as assistant number two, much to the dismay of assistant number one, Emily (Emily Blunt). And so the film can begin. Again.
Andy makes a show of describing her distaste for her new employer for her friends, including ideally shaggy, aspiring chef boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier, who tends to use that blank face here, the one that serves him so well on Entourage) and best friend/photographer Lilly (Tracie Thoms). Sharing her judgments of her coworkers as superficial and dull, they also toast that she can now pay the rent. And really, if she can survive a year at this silly job, she’ll have all sorts of doors opened, at any magazine, including the super-coveted New Yorker.
If Andy is almost immediately shocked at what this survival will entail, you’re surely not. The Devil Wears Prada is as formulaic as, well, as The Princess Diaries (one and two), Hathaway’s previous makeover exercise (“previous” if you don’t count the straight-to-video Havoc, which marked an effort toward career makeover). As bouncy and broad as the fashionista caricatures may be, Andy remains a grounded sort, calculated to be liked and cheered and to incarnate proper distance from the scarily eye-shadowed others. So, even when she crosses over to the dark side, you’re never feeling worried that the change will be permanent or even very meaningful.
So you don’t worry when Andy is beside herself following a few days of being utterly unable to keep up with Miranda’s demands: picking up clothing samples from all the famous designers in the city, not to mention coffee, lunch, reading material, the dog, the car, dry cleaning, and assorted objects for her obnoxious twin daughters (including a manuscript of the as-yet unpublished latest Harry Potter). Neither are you concerned when she turns to the magazine’s art director, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), for help: it’s just a phase, a little bit of hell she must endure en route to coming out all rosy-smelling in the end. Andy will be fine, and so will you, because like Andy, you’re not like the people at the magazine, selfish and shallow. Nigel, being nice and much put-upon himself, takes on the apparently monumental project of making Andy over, and a few tossed-together outfits from the office racks later, she’s brilliant, losing her poly-blend and reentering the office in slow motion and Chanel.
Andy’s transition, however fleeting, is the film’s point. Hathaway has to get into those fabulous designer get-ups (costuming by Patricia Field). Even as you know she’s okay, Andy runs a visible risk of becoming One of Them, increasingly self-absorbed, or Miranda-absorbed, anyway. Nate is depressed (she works on his birthday) but mostly serves as background: “Your job sucks and your boss is a wacko,” he offers, by way of understanding, and when she presses on anyway, he’s officially irrelevant.
At the same time, to underline what’s obvious already, Andy is courted by a writer who covers the uppity-crusty beat, one Christian Thompson (Simon Baker with extra-noticeable eyebrows), who pops up at various events where she’s tending to Miranda, and so, embodies the problem facing Andy so neatly. Smug, articulate, clean-shaven (to distinguish him from Nate), and hyper-judgmental, Christian declares himself superior not only to Us (old Andy) but also to Them (new Andy), meaning he occupies perfectly the third way, the way she’s trying to straddle, at once self-aware and inside this world of haute couture, so cutthroat, imperious, and lurid.
While Christian offers up the image of romantic seduction, Miranda is the desired self. Sort of. Streep makes her slightly more complex than the caricature everyone understands her to be and she so obviously is. Flawlessly appointed in Bill Blass and Dolce, she’s cold but also vulnerable, fast-talking but accurate in her way, and above all, hilarious. If the world of high fashion makes for an incredibly too-easy target, Miranda momentarily makes the seduction seem thinkable.
Though Nigel makes a case for the significance of designers (“What they did is greater than art, because you live your life in it”), Miranda lives the case and more importantly, makes it temporarily convincing. She believes that “everyone wants this, everyone wants to be us,” a faith reinforced by the swarms of photographers and reporters and models and designers who hang on her every word. In part they do this because she’s ruthless and in part because she’s right, she does hold sway over millions of dollars’ worth of market and labor every year. Lives depend on her decisions.
That Andy, so beautiful in her new wardrobe, comes to see this power as superficial and sad rather than desirable is plot-pointy and predictable. But it’s Miranda’s trust in the system that makes the film even remotely interesting. A woman of a certain age, position, and dedication, a woman who’s despised for her power as much as she’s respected, Miranda lives costs even more than returns. Smart and sympathetic in pinches, she chooses to believe. Andy’s choice is obvious, uncomplicated, recognizably principled. Miranda’s, however, remains opaque.
The Devil Wears Prada – Theatrical Trailer