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Thread: David Frankel: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

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    David Frankel: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

    David Frankel: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

    Silk purse from sow's ear


    Review by Chris Knipp

    The fact that Lauren Weisberger's eponymous tome was a thinly-veiled memoir of her brief stint as personal assistant to ice queen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour was what made it a six-month NYTimes bestseller -- not the writing style, which would be easy to skewer. After about the fifth trip to Starbucks to schlep coffee back to the fashion maven on excruciating four-inch heels, the story-telling and the story itself begin to get on your nerves, as does the author-narrator's whole claustrophobic world. What's fascinating even in the book, though, is that any young woman would put up with such torture to make it in magazines or that any fashion world boss-lady could be so spoiled and mean. But the narrative is excruciatingly klutzy and tasteless.

    That the movie sparkles is due to several things. Well, why shouldn't it? This is the world of high fashion. The pressure, the waste, the arbitrariness, are breathtaking -- but so, you have to admit, are the beauty, the elegance, and the glamour of this world. Aline Brosh McKenna has worked wonders with this book, paring it down and introducing more of a sense of progression in her screenplay. The director, "Entourage" and "Sex and the City" alumnus David Frankel, and his team have made excellent choices, starting by casting Meryl Streep as piranha Editor-in-Chief Miranda Priestly and Stanley Tucci as Nigel, her fashion editor.

    It's hard to say if one would want to watch the movie without Streep -- certainly not as much; but who cares? Steely, cruel, elegant, icy, and just a tiny bit pathetic, she's a wicked delight and a huge welcome relief from Streep frumpery in Madison County, The Hours, Lemony Snicket, or Prairie Home Companion. Who knew she had so much delightful meanness in her? But Meryl is a great actress, so there's balance in her extremes. The brief scene near the end where she tells Andy (Anne Hathaway, the author's character, Andy Sachs) that her husband is divorcing her is a marvel. For a few minutes we look into this opaque creature and discover a human being who's caring and hurt. Tucci's Nigel is similarly nuanced, not the tacky, camp creature of the book but again a subtle, modulated portrait of a gay man who's got a lot of class. And yet this is all comedy, and grotesque, because the world of fashion and above all Miranda Priestly's end of it is so awesomely, absurdly over-the-top.

    And it's a lark from scene one, because Andy walks in for her interview as an eager young journalist out of college, but one who's never even heard of this Miranda Priestly lady. Andy has big eyes and a wide mouth and she's pretty and she's not fat, but she's a fashion idiot. She doesn't know who designed the clothes she's wearing, and she soon wishes the people in the office didn't either. She gets looked over from top to toe every time she turns around, and none of them like what they see. But she gets the job because Miranda is sick of sycophants. Not that she doesn't expect and demand that Andy will obey her every whim, and right this instant now, and "that's all" (which is how her commands all end, not with a "please" or a "thank you").

    Streep is effective because she is never, ever shrill. She speaks always in a calm, low, modulated voice. "I cannot understand what you find so difficult about the instructions I have given, which were perfectly clear." That kind of thing. It's like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, it's crazy and it's autocratic -- Miranda is the supreme ruler of her considerable domain -- but we know that Andy is doing this only for a year, for the experience and for the line on her CV; she's not trapped in this world. And there are tiny, tiny signs that Miranda is favorably impressed by Andy's performance, despite the absolute absence of thank-you's or words of praise.

    What also makes the movie work well is that fashion is about the way things look, and this is a pretty film, much meaner than Funny Face but as visually appealing. Lauren Weisberger is free with names, but she never makes us quite see the svelte "clackers" who hover around, or the exaggerated, hugely expensive clothes -- above all she can't show us how Nigel and staff dress Andy up to be seen with her boss. In the movie the sleek transformation unfolds before our eyes.

    Absent from the movie is most of the book's meanness and hatred and bad language and Andy's nightmare drunken roommate. A lot of the grouchiness is absorbed into personal assistant number one, Emily (the able Emily Blunt, Tamsin in the dreamy My Summer of Love), who also takes the bump from a car the roommate gets in the book, but emerges less scathed.

    Andy's boyfriend Nate's distracting daily travails at a ghetto school are removed and he becomes an aspiring sous-chef played by spaniel-eyed cutie Adrien Grenier of "Entourage" whose biggest problem is achieving a killer port wine reduction. Andy's a central character in the movie but not the narrator and we're not stuck inside her head. The movie still has a little posse of underdeveloped friends, though, including a black woman photographer who has a big show, whom we never quite understand or see the point of. Luckily, the focus is always chiefly on queen bee Miranda with her vague commands and clear threats, and Andy trying to keep up, never quite succeeding, but still surviving beyond anyone's wildest expectations, so that before the end when Mirada tells Andy in the limo in Paris during the big fashion week, "You remind me of myself when I was your age," we're startled but not entirely surprised. This is the paradox that sustains the story: Andy hates Miranda, but she wants to please her. She hates this world, but it dazzles her. We leave the movie with somewhat the same feeling.

    This review with pictures.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-14-2006 at 03:37 PM.

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    A Very Fashioned Statement

    Like the movie itself, Chris Knipp has put together a highly fashioned statement of this movie that fits like a glove or Cinderella's shoe.

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    It has been decribed as a Cinderella story, with Miranda as the cruel stepmother. Thank you for the nice compliment.

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    Do producers know there's shabby guys like me out here who ventured into the theatre only because Ms. Meryl Streep is in it? She made all the product-placement and glorification of consumerism tolerable.

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    It's beyond product placement. The fashion world is evidently about names, about labels. So much so that the term "product placement" hardly even means anything. The novel drops far more names than the movie, actually; there are whole lists of them. After a while they cancel each other out. Of course one went for Streep, but I went with my friends, both writers, and the wife is a magazine editor who knew a lot about this world, and it was fun talking to her about it. The gossip element outweights the product element. I don't think fashion is mere consumerism. It is chic, elegance, it is novelty; it is money. It's very expensive, but if you have to think about that, you're out of the game. The people on Runway magazine don't have to buy anything. It's all provided to them. It's promotionism, not consumerism.

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    Checked out the reviews. The Metacritic ratings are too low. Denby's long review is the most favorable, it's really a rave; they have no business assigning it only an 80. It's a 90. Denby's piece is thorough especially in its treatment of fashion, and, typically for the New Yorker, well and stylishly written. Hoberman's is also quite favorable. I like his comparing Andy's chucking her cell phone into the Paris fountain to Coop's throwing his star into the dust. For the most negative and nasty, go to Walter Chaw, not surprisingly; that guy has some serious dysfunctionality going for him (though he is sometimes cool and smart; I liked what he said about Van Sant's Elephant quite a lot at the time). Chaw's reference to the two most intelligent moments in the film is accurate: the disquisition by Miranda about the history of the color cerulean; her speech sans makeup, which I also refer to, as do many others; it's the essential moment. The Metacritic score of 69 being an underestimate, I'd guess the movie has fared pretty well with critics generally. Let's see what Rottentomatoes says: hmmmm. 79. That's more like it. Though many admit as we all must that this is a "wafer-thin" movie saved by a great actress, if the choice is between Superman's spandex and Miranda's Prada, many will choose Prada. Miuccia thanks you. That's all.

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    Minor correction: the Metacritic Score is 62, not 69.

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    Yes you're right. But it's wrong. That stuff is really very arbitrary.

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    Audience Spending Looking Good

    While I know that boxoffice receipts are not the best measure of quality, but since a sizeable majority of this money is from the more discerning female of the human race, it may count for something. The Box Office Guru reports:

    Meryl Streep led the funny flicks with $15M for her hit The Devil Wears Prada which dropped only 46% in its second weekend. It was a solid hold for the Fox title which has now grossed an impressive $63.1M in just ten days. Budgeted at $35M, Devil should power its way to the neighborhood of $110M.

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    DVD release is this week. A good stocking stuffer.
    Colige suspectos semper habitos

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    I think the thing that's most entertaining about "The Devil Wears Prada" is the clever, playful hommage to "Rosemary's Baby" that it actually is.

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    Speaking of stuffers I actually bought the DVD recently, mostly because I wanted to see why they should be nominating Streep with Hathaway in most of the scenes and carrying the film. It comes down to the scene in Paris... the true mark of a great actor is how they set the tone and mood of a scene with an expression, a tilt of the head, a glance, a breath, a pause... they know the tools of their trade and how to use them. Streep isn't just an actor, she is a masterpiece, a work of art, a national treasure, and the greatest screen actor of this or any generation.

    "I don't give a damn what anyone writes about me," she says with such determination in her voice. Then she throws her head back and laments how the 'twins' will take the criticism, when actually they could probably care less. She is the one wounded but cannot admit it, especially in front of a lacky. For all her emotion, crying, and dispair, she is still more concerned about the seating arrangement at tomorrow night's dinner than her marriage. Streep takes us in and allows us to see the inside of Miranda, all with this one memorable scene.

    Later when she says the line about "...they all want to become us!" just before she steps from the limousine into a crowd of flash-popping photographers, nails home her indifference to anyone or anything but herself. The small amount of humanity she allowed us to see in Paris is gone, replaced by her need to be the center of attention. The very thought becomes the motivation for Andy to turn away from this world of facades and rejoin her true passion, news journalism. The ultimate irony being when Miranda indeed shows compassion by her recommendation.

    How a little humanity goes a long way should be the moral of many stories.
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