In “The Devil Wears Prada,” Meryl Streep, as the invincible New York fashion editor Miranda Priestly, never raises her voice. To snarl or shout would imply that some resistance to her authority exists, and none does. In the most matter-of-fact way, Miranda has reduced her staff to a state of hyperventilating fear. At the offices of the thick fashion monthly Runway, the perpendicular girls in John Galliano and heels race through the corridors like cranes on point; one girl, running across the street on a meaningless errand, gets knocked down by a car. Despite these desperate efforts, Miranda insists that she’s a victim of universal lethargy. Day after day, she’s perplexed by the ineptitude of the staff. Lowering her chin slightly, Streep stares at the young women who work for her until their knees knock; she speaks in petulant fragments, leaving out the information that they need, then dismisses the baffled employees with a flutter of her wrists. Streep, a brilliant comedienne, pushes the terror tactics into satire, but the comedy moves in a shrewd direction: Streep’s every gesture says that fashion is a multibillion-dollar business in which civility (except when directed at the famous) has become a disposable luxury. Miranda is a calculating monster—she has excised any remaining trace of softness from her temperament—but she understands her role in fashion so acutely that you can’t make fun of her. In all, this has to be the most devastating boss-lady performance in the history of cinema. By comparison, Faye Dunaway’s hysterics in “Network” come off as amusing freak-outs, and Sigourney Weaver in “Working Girl” is a coarse, leather-lunged shouter.
“The Devil Wears Prada” tells a familiar story, and it never goes much below the surface of what it has to tell. Still, what a surface! Bright and crisp and funny, the movie turns dish into art—or, if not quite into art, then at least into the kind of dazzling commercial entertainment that Hollywood, in the days of George Cukor or Stanley Donen, used to turn out. The director, David Frankel, has made only one feature, the 1995 “Miami Rhapsody,” but he has directed multiple episodes of HBO’s “Entourage” and “Sex and the City,” and he demonstrates a smooth professionalism and knowingness that have virtually disappeared from American movies. For this material, Frankel has a perfect touch, strengthening the inconsequential with emotion, and teasing the self-important with satire. He is aided enormously by Aline Brosh McKenna’s screenplay, which greatly improves the 2003 novel, by Lauren Weisberger, that the movie is derived from. After laboring for less than a year as an assistant to Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, Weisberger created a trivially self-dramatizing fiction based on her trials. Merely by shifting the narrative voice from Weisberger’s gabby heroine, Andy Sachs, to a silent third-person observer, the camera, the filmmakers have increased the material’s control and comic point. Anne Hathaway, who plays Andy, is a tall, beautiful actress with oversized features—a smile wider than the Brooklyn Bridge, harlequin eyes—and she suggests, with no more than a panicky sidelong glance, what Weisberger takes pages to describe. The movie sees people whole, including Andy, whose ignorance and unearned sense of superiority get slapped more than once.
McKenna has shaped Weisberger’s breathless iterations into a reliable plot—a primal Manhattan success story in the form of a fairy tale. Andy Sachs is the Cinderella figure. Instead of sleeping in ashes, she wears them: drab multi-blend sweaters and woollen skirts. Arriving at work as Miranda’s new assistant, she is ruthlessly examined by the boss and by the other young women in the office, who, like wicked stepsisters, make fun of her clothes and increase the exhausting labors that Miranda has already dumped on her. A high-minded college journalist who wants to do serious work, Andy hangs up Miranda’s coat and bag every morning after she flings them down on Andy’s desk; she runs and fetches, crisscrossing the city, tending to Miranda’s dog, her twin daughters, her dry cleaning. The rewards, initially, are low pay and no more than a distant touch of glamour. Andy won’t get to the ball. Miranda has a first assistant, Emily (Emily Blunt), a status-hungry Brit in awe of her boss, and she pointedly tells Andy that only she, Emily, will be at Miranda’s side during fashion week in Paris. In the last good high-fashion movie, Donen’s “Funny Face” (1957), Audrey Hepburn, as an ingénue who becomes a model, was surrounded by whimsically imperious couture types—including Kay Thompson’s tough, Diana Vreelandish editor—but that movie seems to have come out of a relatively gracious world. Hepburn wouldn’t have survived at Runway.
This movie races along with the latte-enhanced pulse of the world’s No. 1 power city. Frankel and his editor, Mark Livolsi, begin the picture with a perfectly calibrated montage of semi-starved beauties pulling on lingerie and clothes as they dress for work; it’s like the lock-and-load scenes of soldiers strapping on their weapons in war movies, and the girls hit the streets of the Lower East Side and the Meatpacking District ready for battle. The movie cuts back and forth between the stresses and mascara-dissolving snits at work and scenes of Andy relaxing with her Manhattan pals, including her gentle boyfriend, Nate (Adrian Grenier). Andy’s friends disapprove of the fashion world, but her scenes with them are a letdown—banal interludes. We’re eager, as she is, to get back to the wickedness at the magazine.
Runway is the engine of desire—not the desire for sex, which the movie regards as relatively unimportant, but for power and for very beautiful things. The severity of the movie’s good taste is awesome; Jess Gonchor’s production design features the chaste beiges and whites of impervious authority. The cars—silver or black Mercedes sports sedans—match the insolent panache of the clothes (Bill Blass, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada) assembled by the costume designer, Patricia Field. “The Devil Wears Prada” is bracingly candid about the role of money in fashion’s rituals. To outsiders, it is, after all, a strange business. A Chanel suit may be built to last, but the industrial side of fashion requires that many goods that seem perfect at a given moment look out of the question a few years later. Miranda Priestly is powerful because she makes definitive judgments that are meant to hold sway no longer than a season or two.
When Andy starts at Runway, she doesn’t care about any of this. Her indifference is an affront to the staff, and, early in the movie, McKenna gives Miranda a nasty but brilliant speech in which she explains the structural connection between a sample from a fashion house—a cerulean belt—that Andy laughs at and the frumpy sweater that Andy is wearing. It’s startling to hear the entire fashion world tied together as an economic unit—Adam Smith couldn’t have done better. Nigel (Stanley Tucci), Miranda’s second-in-command, completes Andy’s education. A superlative wit whose acid observations are infallibly correct, Nigel reaches into the magazine’s vast wardrobe room, where the samples are arrayed on racks, and dresses Andy in a Chanel jacket and boots and a Kristina Ti skirt. Narrowing his mouth and rolling his eyes, Tucci ventures into risky territory with this performance; his cackle and little dance when Nigel thinks that, at last, he has broken free of Miranda—whom he adores and loathes—is a classic moment. In scene after scene, Tucci brings out Hathaway’s confidence, both as actor and as character. Under Nigel’s guidance, and with the aid of Runway’s endless closet, Andy becomes a fashion princess. The rest of the movie asks whether she can assume this role without betraying herself.
It’s slightly hypocritical of the movie to warn us against the seductive allure of the very goods that it is, in fact, seducing us with, but, for the audience, glamour has sensuous rewards that elude moral judgment. This movie delivers an inordinate amount of pleasure, and, in the end, even Miranda escapes our censure. At a reception at the Metropolitan Museum, Streep wears a stunning off-the-shoulder black gown (by Valentino) that exposes a good deal of her beautiful pale flesh. As she turns her head sideways and points her sexy nose, she evokes John Singer Sargent’s most famous subject, the scandalous Madame X. At that moment, Miranda may still be a bitch, but she represents a distinct improvement: the haut-bourgeois ladies of the eighteen-eighties whom Sargent painted have been succeeded by professional women who look great and also run things.
The movie has everything but an adequate prince. As an opportunistic free-lance writer who pursues Andy, the Australian actor Simon Baker flaunts his golden-boy good looks, but he’s meant to be no more than a heavily facetious flirt. Instead of a prince, the movie offers Andy a commoner—Nate, who wants to be a chef, and who, in the person of mop-haired, spaniel-eyed Adrian Grenier, seems too slow for her. “The Devil Wears Prada” will create worldly wisdom in the younger part of the audience, but in one way it departs from worldliness. It presents the heroine’s career options as a simple choice between power and honor. It’s the same choice that “Wall Street” offered Charlie Sheen’s fledgling financier twenty years ago—either become vicious Gordon Gekko or hold on to your soul. “Working Girl” proposed that you can join the establishment without turning into a beast, but someday I’d like to see a film suggesting that you can be the boss without giving up your intellectual ideals, and that the alternative—rejecting power—has its corruptions, too