The Devil Wears Prada, based on Lauren Weisberger’s popular roman à clef about her stint as personal assistant to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, functions like a big-screen version of Sex and the City (its director, David Frankel, helmed some episodes of that show)—it moves fast, and it aims to dazzle you with shoes, brand names, and glamorous locales. Our doe-eyed heroine (Anne Hathaway), who longs to be a serious journalist, decides to put in time as a flunky to ice-queen fashion arbiter Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep), seeing the demeaning gig as a stepping stone to loftier things. She soon trades in her drab sweaters for slinky couture, and her friends keep telling her that she’s selling her soul, but Hathaway, with her endearingly awkward body language, doesn’t seem to change or be in any real danger. The plot keeps dangling attractive opportunities for her to become a ruthless careerist, but Hathaway never really swerves from rectitude or being a Nice Person and never seems truly tempted by sex and power.
This is a predictable movie, not particularly funny, like Funny Face with no musical numbers, but it’s a fairly well made and very well acted piece of sadistic bad-job porn. Stanley Tucci is fresh and appealing as Miranda’s gay advisor and Emily Blunt shows off impressive comic timing as the desperate first assistant. As the devil herself, Streep plays it cool, creating a striking, cobra-like, soft-spoken tyrant who moves and speaks in a minimalist fashion, like a queen who cannot be expected to waste any excess energy on trifles. In Robert Altman’s superb A Prairie Home Companion, Streep was at her fidgety worst: mugging, hogging attention, condescending to her character, and hiding behind a Wisconsin accent. Yet for this amiable, often dubious little entertainment, she puts together a wholly believable, subtle portrait of a bitch who lives in her own world, who lies to herself about what she does and why she does it.
A few days ago, I was idly walking by an Upper West Side theater that was screening the premiere of this film, and I stopped for a minute to take a look at Streep, who was talking to reporters. A dignified-looking young girl walked past me carrying some Samuel French play scripts; she was probably a Julliard acting student. When she saw Meryl Streep standing a foot away from her, she let out a hoarse scream and burst into tears, like a fan at a Beatles concert. Streep’s eminence in her profession is understandable. Though I often have problems with her (James McCourt once snapped that she’s been “indicating,” a cardinal acting sin, for over 30 years), I appreciate her extremely prickly, often pessimistic views on human nature as expressed in a large catalogue of work stretching back to the late-‘70s.
Like Katharine Hepburn, Streep has not been eased into supporting roles in late middle age, and she continues to take the plum parts. Unlike the lyrical Hepburn, Streep is always at her best when playing women who refuse to give in to emotion. Roles like this match up with something weirdly hidden and withholding in her creative character, which lies in stark contrast to the shifting surface of her lavishly gifted but too-often fussy technical skills. The Devil Wears Prada is worth seeing for one scene Streep plays without make-up. Miranda’s husband has decided to leave her, and she briefly lets her guard down in front of Hathaway (actually, she lets her guard down guardedly, like Lindy Chamberlain slowly cracking in the courtroom in A Cry in the Dark). Regret comes into her eyes, and human feeling is dying to break through, but Streep’s Miranda fights it off and snaps back to making her outlandish demands. This effect is touching, invigoratingly tough, and completely Streep-ian. Here is the stroke of an artist cutting through the narcissistic confusion around her, both shaming and enlivening this smooth but wafer-thin film.