Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada / *** (PG-13)

Andy Sachs: Anne HathawayMiranda Priestly: Meryl StreepEmily: Emily Blunt
Nigel: Stanley TucciNate: Adrian GrenierChristian: Simon Baker
Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by David Frankel. Written by Aline Brosch McKenna, based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger. Running time: 106 min. Rated PG-13 (for some sensuality).

It was my wife’s birthday, and she had the pick of the movie. I wasn’t completely averse to seeing “The Devil Wears Prada” — it’s been treated fairly well by most critics. However, I was the third and final man to enter the theater. The rest of the audience was women.

As the opening credits rolled, I realized what an ironic treat this would be for the few heterosexual men who would deign to see it. I was as overjoyed to watch four women in their underwear trying to figure out the best outfit to wear for those credits as Angie was that we were seeing this fashion industry comedy about a lowly secretary whose boss is the queen of mean. The other gift us three men were treated to that evening was a fairly good movie made with wit and intelligence.

Anne Hathaway stars as Andy Sachs, an idealistic journalist who wants to make her mark upon entering “the real world.” With nothing but college credits on her resume, Andy takes a job as an assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep, “Music of the Heart”), editor-in-chief of Runway, the fashion world’s most influential magazine. Although Andy has little interest in fashion, she sees the job as a doorway to other opportunities.

Andy has no clue what she is getting herself into, as Miranda may be the most demanding and unsympathetic boss that ever breathed. There’s a wonderful montage sequence where Miranda, while slamming her coat and purse on Andy’s desk, barks off a daily list of impossible orders for the frightened assistant. “Get me reservations at that restaurant that got that good review.” “I need tickets to that show I thought I’d like.” Etc. Andy looks on in wild wonder as this demon takes over her life without a care for how difficult she makes it.

Miranda is not the only obstacle Andy must face, however. There is also the first assistant, Emily (Emily Blunt, “Empire” TV mini-series), who previously held Andy’s position. Emily sees her role as sort of a Mini Me version of Miranda and breathes the very air Andy walks in with disgust. Emily never viciously sets Andy up for a fall, however, suggesting that beneath the artificial nature of the world they inhabit, these characters are all feeling individuals just trying to survive.

Andy’s salvation comes in the form of Nigel (Stanley Tucci, “Lucky Number Slevin”), the magazine’s fashion director. Nigel still regards Andy with distain, but is at least willing to see her potential and helps her in her inevitable transformation into a fashion maven.

The biggest problem with the film lies with Andy’s friends, most notably her boyfriend, Nate (Adrian Grenier, HBO’s “Entourage”). Nate and Andy’s other friends accuse her of changing and losing her integrity to this job that she supposedly shouldn’t actually care about. Even though screenwriter Aline Brosch McKenna (“Laws of Attraction”) throws in a possible question of fidelity with a romantic connection between Andy and a famous writer, Christian (Simon Baker, “The Ring Two”), all of these accusations of betrayal never ring true since Andy never really changes from the nice person she started out as. They only feel betrayed by her because the script requires it of them.

But the film overcomes this weakness by not spending much time on it. Wisely, the movie narrows its focus squarely on the two leading performances. Streep and Hathaway carry this material effortlessly. Streep turns in yet another killer performance as this realistic Cruella De Vil. Instead of making Miriam into a caricature of an ice queen, Streep imbues her with thought, and with some help from screenwriter McKenna even gets a few moments with her that allow the audience to glimpse just a flash of humanity.

Hathaway, in direct opposition, is a ray of sunlight from open to close. She’s as loveable as Audrey Hepburn in her most memorable roles. When Hathaway first appeared with her breakout role in “The Princess Diaries” — not a far cry from her role here — I’ll admit I didn’t see anything extraordinary in her. But since her serious turn last year in “Brokeback Mountain”, and now with this delightful performance, I can see her star shining bright for quite a while.

While “The Devil Wears Prada” certainly treads on familiar territory, it has a charm and spunk all its own. It has a lot of pep to it, thanks to the refreshing presence of Anne Hathaway, and avoids succumbing entirely to its story’s clich├ęs. Meryl Streep, as always, lends legitimacy to a character that in lesser hands could easily become a cartoon clown. Director David Frankle (HBO’s “Sex in the City”) never compromises his characters for the sake of laughs, and the result is a surprisingly effective comedy that skewers the fashion industry without ever betraying it.

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