*½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker
screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger
directed by David Frankel
by Walter Chaw "Sex and the City" fashion porn married to The Princess Diaries 'tween ugly-duckling uplift, David Frankel's facile sitcom The Devil Wears Prada allows Meryl Streep free reign to craft the titular, nattily-attired hellspawn. Her presence here gives the film the kind of starfuck quotient tied to Jack Nicholson genre vehicles once upon a time; without much effort, one can imagine a carnival barker pulling the wide-eyed bumpkins into the freak tent with the promise of blue-chip capering. Alas, Streep disappoints by turning in a human performance as an Anna Wintour manqué, drifting about as "Miranda Priestly" in Cruella DeVil mane and couture, operating a publishing empire (fictional RUNWAY MAGAZINE substituting for VOGUE, though Madonna's "Vogue" features prominently in the soundtrack for the terminally dim) with a soft voice and a sibilant brittleness.
The film's biggest error in judgment might be that instead of providing an outsider's view of what is, to many, a mysterious world full of arcane concepts and values, The Devil Wears Prada mires its narrative in sophomoric romantic melodrama (will Andy break up with her doe-eyed, blue-collar boyfriend (Adrian Grenier), or will she end up with dashing freelance journalist Christian (Simon Baker)?) and a slippery morality that proudly proclaims its superiority to something that is, as Miranda has eloquently articulated, inextricably woven into our consciousness. It's a problem when your best actors (Streep and Stanley Tucci) argue so well on the side of the enemy while the hero (Hathaway) is so pure that there's never much of a question as to her alleged corruption. She's not staring into an abyss, she's fucking up a great job opportunity in a fascinating field. She's less the noble victim than the naïf making a bad mistake following her sous chef beau to Beantown.
Two scenes suggest the film that could have been. The first finds dowdy new assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway) giggling at the silliness of high fashion only to get a brilliant rundown on the evolution of her bag-lady cerulean sweater, the second features Streep, sans makeup, revealing what it's like to be a woman in a tank full of men. The rest of it is the typical I-don't-even-recognize-you-anymore bullshit so threadbare and hand-me-down that the fashion mavens of the film would be the first to deride it. It's the performances that save the film to the extent that it can be saved, really, and Hathaway is fast becoming the girl with whom I most want to associate the word "breathless." She's all eyes and awkward and already too charming to play these Sandra Bullock frumps. Stanley Tucci continues his career-long homage to Peter Sellers as a long-suffering fashion consultant at the magazine who longs for a room of his own; Emily Blunt provides a broken climber decked out in red-rimmed eyes and a runny nose; and of course there's Streep's dynamic understatement.
Without them, The Devil Wears Prada is just a feature-length version of the opening credits of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", with Meryl Streep as Lou Grant and a big ol' rapturous toss of the hat the solution to those prickly body-image conundrums that surface when Miranda calls size-6 beauty Andy "fat"--and Andy obligingly shrinks down to a size 4. It'd raise more eyebrows if it wasn't exactly the kind of retarded girl-movie message sold every three months to those most vulnerable to it. We've finally come full-circle from the outrage of Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth to the casual acceptance that beautiful girls are stupid and frumpy girls are smart. Surrender as progress: God bless America. Originally published: June 30, 2006.
by Bill Chambers Fox presents The Devil Wears Prada on DVD in a fairly lush and filmlike 2.38:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer.* Minor edge-enhancement issues aside, the image very simply delivers--ditto the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio: the front-heavy mix sounds crisp and warm, though Meryl Streep's dialogue occasionally dips so far below reference volume as to be inaudible. On another track, find a monotonous group commentary featuring director David Frankel, producer Wendy Finerman, costume designer Patricia Field, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, editor Mark Livoisi, and DP Florian Ballhaus; the adage too many cooks spoil the broth would seem to apply, as nothing remotely revelatory emerges from their conversation. The body-part models needed manicures and pedicures? You don't say. Anne Hathaway is gorgeous? Get outta town. Frankel obsessive-compulsively notes whether we're looking at a set or a location and Field embarrasses herself with the observation that "the choice of Madonna was great" as "Vogue" plays underneath on the film's soundtrack. Not that she corners the market on literalmindedness: at one point, Frankel describes the white interiors of RUNWAY MAGAZINE 's headquarters as being like a makeup compact and thus serving as a "metaphor" for this world, which is sort of like saying Bruce Wayne's Batcave is a metaphor for a place where bats live.
Video-based extras include a gaggle of featurettes. "The Trip to the Big Screen" (12 mins.) summarizes the struggle to adapt Lauren Weisberger's popular but one-dimensional roman à clef to the big screen. Finerman, evidently confusing range with an HBO contract (she admires Frankel's ability to oscillate between "Band of Brothers" and "Sex and the City"), opens herself up to ridicule by admitting she pursued a working relationship with Frankel since the best-forgotten Miami Rhapsody. I might add that all the genuflections before the fashion industry here directly contradict the movie's demonization of fashion as a career choice. "NYC and Fashion" (6 mins.) is a far more typical promotional featurette, if not the flat-out EPK that is "Boss from Hell" (3 mins.), while "Fashion Visionary Patricia Field" (9 mins.) is a better forum for the titular costumer, who's in her element discussing the strings she had to pull to get so much couture on screen. Turns out those egregious Pretty Woman montages are not just the bane of our existence.
Lastly, "Getting Valentino" (3 mins.) is an extended account of the steps taken to procure fashion impresario Valentino for a cameo. A section of fifteen deleted scenes totalling 22 minutes with optional commentary from Frankel and Livoisi is kind of maddening for Frankel's oft-repeated confession that he's never seen this material--trusting his editor that implicitly only betrays his TV training and makes it difficult to take Frankel seriously as an auteur. Livoisi did some judicious cutting, though, tightening the first act and wisely deleting a premature (and redundant) gesture of gratitude from Miranda to Andy. An interminable Gag Reel (5 mins.), trailers for The Devil Wears Prada and The Illusionist, a soundtrack spot for The Devil Wears Prada, and TV spots (?) for The Family Stone and In Her Shoes round out the platter; a montage hyping a trifecta of crap--Just My Luck, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and John Tucker Must Die--cues up on startup. Originally published: December 4, 2006.
*also available in fullscreen