It may be true that drama is a young actor’s game; after some years of it, it gets draining, and a seasoned actor starts leaning more towards comedy (which is often harder). Meryl Streep began her career intense and tragic, becoming synonymous with “anguished Oscar-chasing chameleon,” but she’s been lightening up over the past decade or so. Her role in The Devil Wears Prada — the imperious fashion-magazine editor Miranda Priestly — is probably the pinnacle of Streep’s late-period sojourn into comedy. Streep brings all her authority and technique to bear in a performance that barely requires her to move (everyone else moves for Miranda). When she’s done talking to a subordinate, she inflects “That’s all” with a cool dismissiveness that borders on metaphysical — you half expect the other person simply to vanish into thin air, as he or she vanishes in Miranda’s attention.
Streep is a far better reason to see The Devil Wears Prada than the movie itself. It’s entertaining enough, and it’s shrewdly cast — it’s great to see Stanley Tucci again, in the bitchy role of Miranda’s right-hand man at Runway magazine. But at its core is another of those tired moralistic plots in which a nice ingenue agonizes over Selling Out vs. Being True to Herself. The ingenue here is Anne Hathaway, perhaps cast because she proved in the Princess Diaries movies that she can rise to royalty without making the audience feel that she’s putting herself above them. (It’s essentially the Julia Roberts role of fifteen years ago.) Hathaway is Andy Sachs, an aspiring writer and recent college grad who puts herself through the torture of working as assistant to the impossibly demanding Miranda because after a year in the job, we’re told repeatedly, Andy can write her own ticket in New York. Andy can’t make up her mind how she feels about this, and neither can the movie.
Am I shallow to think that Andy should’ve dumped her pouty boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) and her unsupportive friends and embraced the absurdity and challenge of the job? It would’ve made for a more fun movie (and less of a Life Lesson — or Lifetime Lesson). The scenes in which Andy vents about — or, worse, is lectured to about — the false values inherent in fashion slavery are a drag. We know fashion is silly; tell us something we don’t know. Other than an impressive speech by Miranda in which she hands Andy her rhetorical ass for being snarky about a belt, the movie doesn’t make much of a case for why so many smart people are working in fashion. And so Andy seems to be wasting her time, and Miranda’s, and ours. (As the movie went on, I found myself sympathizing more with the bitter Brit “first assistant” played by the aptly named Emily Blunt. She, at least, seems to want this life and have some passion for it, and it’s a real bummer when she gets betrayed by Miranda, Andy, and the plot.)
Things are muddled further when Andy meets a suave magazine writer (Simon Baker) who obviously has the hots for her and offers to introduce her to his editor. All these golden opportunities fall into Andy’s lap, and she doesn’t know what to do with them. To be honest, she begins to seem a bit of a dummy. Why so much dithering about the price of success? Especially since the movie half-heartedly defends Miranda by saying that, if she were male, nobody would have a problem with her attitude? That’s true to some extent, though I wonder if anyone who’s worked for, say, Donald Trump and felt his wrath would say the same. Or, for that matter, the raging movie producer played by Kevin Spacey in 1995’s Swimming with Sharks, which this film resembles, except that Andy doesn’t kidnap Miranda and torture her with paper cuts.
Like many moralizing Hollywood films, The Devil Wears Prada wants to have its cake and denounce it too. After entertaining us with the flash of the fashion world and its witty menagerie, the movie turns around and says it’s all cutthroat and meaningless, and that we shouldn’t try to get above our station — we should be happy being schmoes. It would play better if Andy were shown to be actually good at her job, instead of lucking into most of her advancements; how convenient, for instance, that she finds a way to get ahold of the unpublished Harry Potter manuscript because her new writer friend knows someone who knows someone. The Devil Wears Prada tells us it’s all about who you know, a bitter truth everyone learns sooner or later, but then gives Andy a noble way out of the shark tank based on … who she knows. The movie needed to be either lighter or darker; it scolds Andy for making certain choices without making any itself.