Review: “The Devil Wears Prada”

Marketed as both a dark Meryl Streep comedy and a sweet-natured Anne Hathaway coming of age story, ‘Prada’ feels more like “The Princess Diaries” than “Death Becomes Her” in its sharp but still fuzzy tone – thus audiences hoping for an eviscerating expose of the fashion and magazine publication industries will likely prove disappointed. The story follows conventional sitcom conventions in the beginning with a young woman working for the worst and most demanding boss in the world.

Cut to numerous and interchangeable situations of said young woman frantically running and calling about in order to achieve the impossible – and doing so with flair – whilst numerous cliched supporting characters hop along as allies, temptations and foils to play off. As the film progresses, the minimal levels of light laughs give way to some heavy handed but familiar moral lessons about what suffers when work takes over your life and becomes your obsession.

In terms of story ‘Prada’ certainly doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Characters are so familiar we can almost hear their lines before they speak them, much of the supporting cast members – especially the males – are reduced to almost cardboard cameos, and there’s a definite blanket of Hollywood happy moral spin to it all. The original novel contained much sharper teeth and portrayed Streep’s Miranda character as simply a one-dimensional monster.

Yet whilst some of the biting laughs and social commentary have been sacrificed, there’s been some improvement in other areas. Whilst we must wade through the more general ‘growing up’ elements in the later scenes, the film does mostly stick to the stuff we want to see – the inside world of fashion, and the sharp barbed attacks of Streep on her long suffering staff. The costumes and production design are top notch, and solid work on both editing and shooting fronts make this look more glamorous than its budget would attest to.

Yet the score too often falls back on tired sassy pop tunes, whilst David Frankel’s direction relies on sitcom tricks like time montages and one note supporting characters purely used as viewpoint mouthpieces. Most notable of these are the friends and boyfriend character, dull one-note people seen in limited scenes and only there to show how Hathaway’s character has slipped away from the real world into a whole new one. For all these bland moments though, along will come a real bit of beautifully delivered insight including the brilliant ‘Sirulian Blue’ monologue scene which will probably be the film’s most quoted sequence.

What saves the film from tedium is Streep herself. In a deftly played understated turn, she manages to vastly improve on the material given, and yet still keeps the nature of the character intact throughout. Rather than going over the top with fire and brimstone-fueled outbursts like the book played out, she has taken the opposite tack. As a result Miranda has become an ice queen of the first caliber, a woman whose silences, pointed glances and airy two word dismissals are far more frightening than her tantrums.

The film also adds some dimension to her in later scenes, most notably some short glimpses into her personal life when the mask she presents to the world slips off just a little to show a woman underneath who has sacrificed much to get where she is. These two or three moments feel real and are well done, but never go too far as to feel like a cheat – even in these scenes the film never forgets the sheer strength of will this woman exudes. It makes the film’s last scene, involving just a simple facial expression, to be one of the most satisfying conclusions you’ll see in a movie all year.

Notable also are Tucci and Blunt, the former adding a touch of class and personal humanity to a rather flat character whilst the later as the manic senior assistant provides a great energy and sense of fun to a role that easily could’ve been turned into the ‘basic bitch’ formula that these films supporting cast members can fall into. Hathaway is fine as the lead, bringing her usual style with her but the whole ‘innocent but smart girl’ routine is starting to wear thin as she’s getting older. Grenier is completely forgettable in a understandably needed but ultimately useless boyfriend role.

Ultimately ‘Devil’ works for a younger and wider audience than expected. The film delivers a story sweet enough for the young girls, relatively warm enough for the guys dragged along on dates, and smart enough at times to appeal to the older crowd. A more singular, sharp and smarter tone would’ve made it a far more memorable piece of work, but despite the indulgences in cliche and rather clumsy moral exposition, there’s a few moments of inspired skewering which make it quite watchable.