Having spent one cold, stormy winter of my youth fetching coffee and shuffling faxes at a fashion magazine whose name you would know, I was interested to see what details The Devil Wears Prada would get right. Beyond that, there were no expectations. I never picked up the popular book and couldn't tell you if realism was one its selling points, or even if the actual, biblical Lucifer was Meryl Streep's latest character. Turns out the fallen angel never makes an appearance, but this movie does demand a huge suspension of disbelief from us right off the bat. We are supposed to go along with its assertion that Andrea, the green gamine played by the fetching Anne Hathaway, is "fat." This charge is laid against her specifically and repeatedly throughout the film. Since she never gives the obvious retort, I'll give it: What are the clues that identify her as obese? The waistline that would turn storefront mannequins green with envy? The shoulder blades that seem ready to punch through her skin? The arms that could be mistaken for Pixy Sticks? Lest we think the movie is kidding, there's even a Personal Triumph Moment that comes in the third act, when Andrea thrills her aerodynamic colleague Stanley Tucci with the news that she has dropped a dress size. Instead of quickly administering a jelly doughnut and phoning for an ambulance, he squeals with satisfaction.
Despite its implied promise of boss-on-assistant psychological torture, The Devil Wears Prada turns out to be all feather tickling; there's nothing cutting enough to live up to the cold, futuristic severity of Meryl Streep's vanilla scoop hairdo. In fact, the movie is a throw-back; a dip of cotton-candy Americana so antiquated that Frank Capra could easily have spun a similar yarn and wrapped it around goings-on at the Bedford Falls newspaper. This movie believes, among other things, that plucky Midwesterners can teach city folk a thing or two about how to be nicer, that such a lesson would be an important one, that New York City is a fair town, and that your significant other is probably on to something when they suggest that a high-paying gateway job in your chosen profession should be sacrificed rather than miss a birthday party. In other words, it's a completely concocted world. That some of the humor ends up working is partially by accident and partially because Meryl Streep rarely takes a wrong step in her performance and knows when to make a running dive for a joke. Her best gag comes when she doesn't even deign to look up from her reading material while commanding Andrea, her shipwrecked assistant, to go out and secure the unpublished manuscript of the next Harry Potter book. "My twins want to know what happens next," she yawns. The punch-line comes when she looks up, and we see she's not kidding.
For her Anna Wintour-inspired character, Miranda Priestly, Streep mostly relies on one technique to keep her performance consistent -- she affects a kind of never-ending run-on whisper, as if she's dictating her memoirs into a highly sensitive microphone pinned to her lapel while she stalks through the office of Runway magazine. The idea being, of course, woe to the subordinate who misses an instruction or a whim thrown in there somewhere. We only hear about the unholy fate of one such underling. "She now works at TV Guide," someone says with a lump in their throat. There are a fair number of little cracks like that one that come off well, but the pleasant surprise is that unintentional laughs also abound. The movie is at its funniest when it tries to convince us that fashion is a worthy and noble pursuit to devote one's life to, as long as you don't pursue it like a snooty New Yorker. Hathaway's character scores perhaps the biggest touchdown, delivering this line with a straight face: "Fashion is more than just purses. Here, read this piece by Jay McInerney ... ." The film also goes out of its way to provide us with a paragon of virtue to contrast against the supposed satanic nature of Runway: A plucky little up-start newspaper called New York Mirror where everyone is down-to-earth and bleary-eyed from hard work, and they actually seem to be wearing last year's Yves St. Laurent pant suits. Gag. What a bunch of losers!
It should be noted that Hathaway's character takes one radical departure from the Audrey Hepburn ingenue playbook in this film, when she lets herself be talked into a one-night stand with a slimy magazine editor who looks like Owen Wilson's hard-living uncle. After having his way with her, he is understandably all smiles the next morning. Meanwhile, she has come to her senses and proudly informs him "I'm not your baby" before stomping out of the room. Is that a victory for her? What was the point of allowing our heroine to be soiled? If the purpose is to make some kind of statement about sexual freedom and modern times and what-not, then such a statement seems a bit out of place for a character so young and inexperienced that she relies on her father to bring envelopes of cash when he visits her in the big city, lest she fall on hard times. The whole episode seems out of character, but out-of-character is a recurring motif in this movie, since the world is mostly imagined instead of inspired by life. Very few of the real people who slave to push out the monthly fashion glossies actually follow the ins and outs of the runway circuit the way others follow the World Cup. Faking an interest in such things is part of their business.
Most fashion magazines are staffed by Snickers-sneaking, denim-bottomed Ivy League journalism brats who can only be roused to a genuine curiosity about haute couture when they are invited to watch Kate Beckinsale or Keira Knightley try it on for the cover shoot. The Anna Wintour fashion high-priestess types do exist, but they are rare. Most magazines insource them -- giving them a desk and a hefty salary in exchange for an unwritten (or written) commitment that the fashionista will sing the name and praises of the magazine on all the talk shows and red carpets while the drones at the office actually focus on the meat and potatoes of editorial work. I remember one such semi-famous figure in the office where I worked. The editorial staff was given a jolt one day when a shaky tower of her unread mail, faxes and assorted bric-a-brac tumbled from her abandoned desk into a heap on the floor.