A recipe for a new movie: Start with Wall Street. Switch the sex of all the characters. Instead of stocks, make designer clothing the object that everyone wants. Add in a kicky soundtrack a la The Secret of My Success. Stir the whole mixture to make it lighter and frothier and voila—you now have The Devil Wears Prada.
Despite being arguably the most beloved city in America, New York is often depicted in films as a monster waiting to devour people. In films as disparate as Success and Wall Street (both of which came out in 1987, at the height of 80’s materialism), we see the recurring theme of a wide-eyed newcomer being seduced by the big city. Devil follows in their footsteps in more ways than one. Based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger, the newcomer here is Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), a recent Northwestern grad who somehow stumbles into a job as the second assistant to the demonic Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the chief editor of a Runway, a fashion magazine along the lines of Vogue. Like Wall Street, The Devil Wears Prada is a Cinderella story where the princess has to decide whether or not she really wants the glass slipper.
Devil, despite its ultra-modern setting, is an old story that has been used in countless other films. Familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact I’m often entertained by movies that have stories I’ve seen before. However, the key to making something familiar work on screen is in the execution, and that’s where Devil comes up short. Directed by David Frankel (Miami Rhapsody) from a script by Aline Brosh McKenna (Laws of Attraction), The Devil Wears Prada offers absolutely no surprises.
The film rests on the shoulders of young Hathaway, who should be ideal in the role. Her shortcoming as an actress is that her acting always feels like acting. She hits all the right notes, but they all feel rehearsed. Her earnestness feels put on and her comedy always has a touch of “Aren’t I cute?” in it. She gets an A for effort, but she still has some growing to do as a performer. While Hathaway overdoes it, Streep underplays her role as the dragon lady boss. Despite her billing, Streep has a supporting role that gives her very little to do. Other than modeling her Cruella-DeVil-chic wardrobe, her main function is to plant obstacles in Andy’s way. Streep’s performance is delicious to a point, but it becomes one-note after awhile. When she does get one scene where Miranda shows a crack in her frosty veneer, it seems arbitrary—as if both the story and the actress needed a change of pace.
If Streep’s role is limited, the men here are basically non-entities. Stanley Tucci plays, what else, Andy’s gay confidante. Like Streep, he goes for a less-is-more performance that I wish Hathaway and some of the other costars could’ve matched to make the tone of the film more consistent. Simon Baker shows up as a dashing editor to create a love triangle for Andy, whose busy schedule has forced her to neglect her boyfriend (Entourage’s Adrian Grenier). Grenier registers very low on the charisma scale, while Baker is naturally charming and has better chemistry with Hathaway. Since in the end, we’re supposed to root for her to end up with Grenier, that’s a problem.
That love triangle, like everything else in The Devil Wears Prada has no emotional weight to it. Since the film keeps everything at the surface, Andy’s choices all seem like no-brainers. As a comedy, there are few light moments and as a drama, it lacks depth. Towards the end of the movie, Streep’s character tells Andy, “Everyone wants to be us.” Given the bitchy, ice-cold portrayal the industry gets here, I couldn’t think of anyone who’d want spend five minutes with these people. Instead of digging into the fashion industry, The Devil Wears Prada simply perpetuates its superficial reputation.
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