For an industry in decline, print journalism has done a fashion publicist’s job of staying in vogue, particularly among the more stylish of career-seeking college grads. Never mind telling these BlackBerry-toting eager beavers that even an unpaid gig in the field is as rare as a winning lottery ticket: The Devil Wears Prada, an American Idol for J-school dreamers, promises the glamorous life — celebrity cocktail parties, closets full of designer swag … and you don’t have to write anything!
A fantasy of product placement in more ways than one, Lauren Weisberger’s chick-lit fictionalization of her postcollegiate year running peon errands for Vogue‘s imperious boss from hell spent months on the best-seller list and had its movie rights sold to Fox even before the manuscript was finished. As words seem beside the point in this milieu, it goes without saying that the Prada picture tells the story without working overtime. Indeed, an ironic measure of the film’s research into the fashion-mag scene is the fact that there’s almost no journalism in it. Director David Frankel — son of former New York Times executive editor Max Frankel, but also, more important, a veteran of numerous Sex and the City episodes — waits a full hour to show us an editorial meeting at Runway, Weisberger’s stand-in for Vogue. What’s weirder is that, burying the lead, he waits another twenty minutes to give us a peek at the catwalk.
Otherwise, the movie’s main tweaks to Weisberger’s fluffy roman à clef are, appropriately, cosmetic. A blond graduate of Brown in the book, young go-getter Andrea Sachs is now a lanky brunette from Northwestern when luck (mostly good) shoves her into the feng shui/white-on-white corner office of Runway editor Miranda Priestly, here silver-haired and played by Meryl Streep as a cross between Cruella de Vil and the whipcracking sadist essayed by Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl. Andrea (Anne Hathaway) — Andy to her unkempt beau (Adrian Grenier) and assorted pals, “Awn-DRAY-uh” to the boss — scrambles to learn the preferred temperature of Miranda’s lattes, the proper spelling of “Gabbana,” the quickest route to a copy of the unpublished Harry Potter tome for the editor’s evil twin daughters. Can Andy get Miranda out of Miami on a private jet — during a hurricane — and into Manhattan in time for the twins’ recital? And if not, can she keep the job?
Frankel’s caffeinated montage of coats, bags, boxes, and faxes landing in successive plops on Andy’s desk gives us a sense of what the assistant is up against. Yet, more Pretty Woman than Working Girl, The Devil Wears Prada really lives to give its angel a high-class makeover. The film’s pop-fueled before-and-after spread takes the kid from cotton-blend sweater and plaid skirt to Jimmy Choo stilettos and a size-four Chanel, from cafeteria corn chowder to nibbled hors d’oeuvres. (Let’s hear it for starvation.) A $1,900 Marc Jacobs bag — this movie’s equivalent of a James Bond gadget — becomes just another of Andy’s happy-hour giveaways while she’s busy saving the fashion world by cell. Weisberger pictured Katie Holmes in the lead, and settles for a cheaper model who heeds the call by hearing every beat of Madonna’s “Vogue” when Frankel pumps it up. Hathaway’s film-long catwalk renders top-billed Streep a supporting player — at least until the penultimate moment when the devil, sans makeup, bids to humanize herself by complaining of her role as Rupert Murdoch’s gossip-page fashion slave. (As Prada is not yet a News Corp. product, Fox can’t miss the chance to promote itself — even as the mere plaything of another tough boss.)
Stitched according to pattern, Prada contrives to give Andy cause to consider even writing on deadline as a relief from Runway‘s cruel world. Promotions are withheld and frocks are ruffled, but there’s nothing nearly as catty in the movie as the Times Book Review piece by Weisberger’s fellow Voguester Kate Betts, who sneered that even sympathy for the devil is preferable to loving the author and her “snob” of an alter ego. Miranda’s habit of dismissing her assistant with a brusque “That’s all” and a wave of her hand, like flicking lint off her sleeve, isn’t enough to make you believe that Andy or anyone would give up the first-rate fashionista perks for a shot at cranking out news copy for a third-tier daily, no matter her award-winning article in the college paper. This is the umpteenth Hollywood movie about a purportedly talented writer that never bothers to show us anything she wrote. Still, as the line between advertising and editorial grows thinner than this year’s model, maybe our heroine has all she needs. In the end, Frankel cranks up the pop as Andy works the rush-hour crosswalk, suggesting that the path from Park Avenue to the Pulitzer is just another runway.