Hell hath no fury
BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - September 1, 2006 - 12:00am
In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep is Miranda Priestly, and Miranda Priestly is Meryl Streep. This is a Meryl that glares and deadpans and acts her ass off in a turn of devilish understatement, giving the best comedic performance of her legendary career; this, on the other hand, is a Miranda that we similarly haven’t seen.

Saying Miranda Priestly is a caricature is an exaggeration in itself. In more ways than not, she is real life, the embodiment of entitlement and self-obsession that, almost by default, comes with success in an industry fixated on veneers and surfaces, if only to the untrained eye. But cue the expository crying scene, and this is all for naught: Miranda, in a bathrobe, sans makeup, is revealed to be much more than the cruel editrix derided in Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, the author’s best-selling roman à clef on her yearlong internship at Vogue. From her travails under Anna Wintour, Weisberger whipped up an undeniably entertaining yet grammatically flawed dish, at the expense of a character that remained shallow, one-note yet hilarious, if only by maintaining a detachment that allowed us to revel in the gossip without the compunctions that come from a relationship with the character. We were always on the side of Andy, Weisberger’s literary identity, because of the first-person narrative that limited our psychological perspective and viewpoint.

In adapting the novel, however, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna and Sex and the City veteran director David Frankel decided it needed a major makeover: they stripped away characters and subplots and the most memorable details, even dramatically toning down Miranda’s obsessive proclivity for white Hermès scarves and a cheese danish every morning. What is left safely intact is the boss-from-hell selling point; that, and the fabulous clothes.

But, of course, there are fabulous clothes! What remained verbal brand-dropping on the page is styled by the incredible Patricia Field into full-fledged sartorial porn of the highest, trendiest, most unequivocally fashionable degree. Ms. Miuccia would be proud. The film recognizes the fashion industry’s superficial, hedonistic image as perceived by those looking in, and is able to rebuff that image and at the very least instigate a dialogue on the cultural significance of the right kind of clothing. Fashion, says Nigel, Runway magazine’s impossibly witty fashion director, is "greater than art, because you live your life in it."

Still, we all knew The Devil Wears Prada would be the best-dressed film of the year, at least in terms of contemporary clothing; its period counterpart is naturally Sofia Coppola’s more-gorgeous-than-you-can-imagine Marie Antoinette, for which Milena Canonero deserves an Oscar. (Trust me, I’ve seen it, it’s jaw-droppingly breathtaking. After opening at Cannes and other European territories well before its October US release, the polarizing biopic’s influence has already established its presence on the runway, on the cover of Vogue, and all those ubiquitous Dolce & Gabbana ads.)

And, unlike Weisberger perhaps, Frankel and McKenna understand it takes more than great clothes and a two-dimensional villain to transcend stigmatized chick lit conventions. The done-to-death, estrogen-charged concept of a PG-rated Bright Lights, Big City post-feminist fairytale (i.e. no coke or dizzying ’80s strobe) is made transcendent, or even remotely relevant, by a clever and funny script that does not suffer from the director’s concurrent tonalities. Life, according to Frankel, is made up of whirling montages for every act of mundanity, and we’re all thankful for that; the fact that his musical cues take from both vintage Madonna (Vogue, natch) and "Confessions"-era disco-balls-and-purple-leotards Madge (Jump) is evidence of his audience awareness. Ironically so much of its predictability, thanks to the standards of the genre it wisely stays obedient to, or rather the way it attains much more from that predictability, is one of the outstanding successes of The Devil Wears Prada.

Its fantastic actors are able to do the same. In a cast where almost every major player is a revelatory comedic standout, Stanley Tucci as Nigel injects every one of his scenes with equal doses of erudition and wit. From across the pond lands Emily Blunt, the British scene-stealer as Miranda’s senior assistant Emily; Blunt crackles, her performance capably informing the naïveté of Anne Hathaway as Andy. In spite of all this, The Devil Wears Prada will always be Meryl Streep’s movie: she owns the screen, so immaculate and stunning in her evilness that bowing down almost seems like an obligation. In what could have been a rehash of her explosive role in 2004’s Manchurian Candidate remake, Streep’s performance is an achievement of playful restraint; she has the ability to endear herself to the audience, all the while spouting acid from pursed lips.

The steely, hard-edged character of Miranda, as enhanced by Streep herself, inexorably ends up in conflict with Andy’s unwillingness; the film questions the motivations of morality as defined by the individual. Why should a woman who is intelligent and shrewd and Machiavellian while altogether human be criticized for doing what exactly must be done? In fact, she isn’t being chastised at all: Andy, the small-town idealist, may have recognized in folksy, age-old tradition that she cannot abide by the maxim for success – gender notwithstanding – but it’s Miranda Priestly that rules all. Andy may have won back her dopey, irritatingly sensitive boyfriend played by Adrian Grenier (where’s Vincent Chase when you need him?), and is happy with the unglamorous drabness of newspaper reporting. Fine; she’s happy, we’re happy. But getting to the top in any field inevitably requires selling your soul to the devil in stilettos, one thing Andy’s bound to realize way after the credits roll.

To superimpose Miranda’s treatment of Andy with the dissolution of Miranda’s own domesticity is to humanize the character, to place her behavior into context without justification. But to humanize in this case also, in essence, feminizes the character: a man so ruthless would not need a reason to act as such beyond the given need for success, when according to the film, a woman requires sympathy and back story for her drive to be fathomed. To be fair, such a man portrayed on celluloid would probably have ended up a cartoon; Miranda, as Weisberger failed to render, is made into a person of distanced myth and fascination, and engaged emotion and dimension. The grander success here is not so much the masterful character that was created, but the way Streep evades the film’s obligatory predictability to achieve that honesty. Up until now, not once this year has Hollywood churned out a comedy this charming and wonderfully irresistible; studio-financed comedies, it turns out, can still very much entertain.

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