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Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

If there is a moral to The Devil Wears Prada it must be that if you wear it as well you are bound to go straight to Hell along with Meryl Streep. Fortunately, the night I saw this movie at the Essex Cinemas with a mostly-packed theater there was nada Prada in the house. After all, this is Vermont, a place where the fashion bar lays firmly in the mud along with most people’s taste. Here, Ben & Jerry’s tee shirts and a pair of faded Lee jeans permanently stained from the greasy cheese fries long ago spilled on them during a night out at Nectar’s can be worn along with flip-flops to just about anywhere without raising an eyebrow. It’s called laid-back, and that’s what makes Vermont Vermont.

Apparently even though Vermonters don’t seem to care about haute couture, it is not a reflection on whether they care about Meryl Streep (A Prairie Home Companion). The crowd at The Devil Wears Prada was practically giddy to see Streep in her role of Miranda Priestly, the high priestess of high fashion, the queen of cruelty. Miranda, you see, is the steamroller behind this movie. She is the real reason the seats are full. Nobody cares if there is a plot. The audience just wants to see La Streep breathe fire into the Dragon Lady boss from Hell she embodies in this role.

Miranda is the CEO of Runway magazine, the fashion world’s Bible when it comes to what’s hot and what’s not, the final arbiter of who’s who (and who’s a has been), and Miranda herself can destroy a designer’s career with the simple pursing of her lips in response to her distaste of a single outfit. Think of her as Donald Rumsfeld in chiffon or the anti-Sophie from her famous role in Sophie’s Choice. Here, Streep is the demonic flip-side of her earlier role as a Polish war survivor, only instead of choosing which of her children to save from death she spends her time deciding which of her two closest employees to torment until they wish they were dead.

The Devil Wears Prada wouldn’t work, of course, without a victim, and Anne Hathaway (Brokeback Mountain) does an excellent job as doe-eyed Andrea Sachs, the hapless recent journalism graduate who stumbles upon Runway while looking for a writing job and ends up as one of Miranda’s two assistants when Miranda decides to take a chance on size 6 Andrea because she thought she’d “give the fat girl a chance.”

The other assistant, Emily (Emily Blunt; Irresistible), considers herself the heir to Miranda’s throne and looks upon Andrea as a ghastly interloper, a fashion faux pas, who is less than something she may have stepped in on her way to the office. This contempt only grows worse as Andrea catches on to the job and seems to thrive on the challenges thrown her way by the demanding Miranda, who tosses a steady stream of ridiculous tasks her way. Whether it is getting a steak perfectly cooked and delivered to her desk in 15 minutes from her favorite restaurant or obtaining the unpublished next Harry Potter manuscript within the next five hours, Miranda weighs each the same and expects it done without question because she doesn’t want to be “disappointed.” Being “disappointed” in Miranda’s vernacular translates into your being fired, naturally.

The real story is in how Andrea changes as she slowly becomes more and more like her boss and how this damages the relationship she has with her live-in boyfriend, Nate, played by Adrian Grenier (of tv’s Entourage), as well as the friendships she has with her best pals Lilly (Tracie Thoms; Rent) and Doug (Rich Sommer; Death 4 Told). Here the question that burns at the center of their conflict is simple ~ at what point does one’s job take possession of your identity and you become that creation instead of who you really are? In Andrea’s case she seems to have disappeared entirely and been reborn as a burgeoning magazine mogul/fashionista in the mold of the person she dreads the most - Miranda.

That’s the only trouble with which The Devil Wears Prada appears to struggle. It seems to have a nagging bit of guilt over whether to allow itself to become the complete office bitchfest it wants to be and so it injects a little heart into the storyline, even showing Miranda’s human side. That is its’ biggest failure since screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna has imbrued the character with a venom that has made her as cuddly as Darth Vader up until the last third of the film. Perhaps McKenna’s conscience was catching up with her, but Streep didn’t seem to mind chewing the scenery and spewing out bile at one victim or another. Frankly, she could give Barbara Walters and Star Jones tips on how to carry on a nasty feud. She’s got the rhythm down pat.

Of course, sweet-natured Andrea is bound to see the error of her ways. This is, after all, an American film, and we tend not to like our heroes and heroines to cross-over to the dark side forever, but since Miranda’s heart was missing in action before the story began even her tiniest redemption isn’t enough to prevent the possibility of sequel, should enough people enjoy her Satanic twist on Sophie’s Choice. Her claws are well-manicured and her fangs are capped by only the most prominent Manhattan dentist there is, of course, so she is ready for action, should The Devil Wear Versace next year.

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