Monday, December 11, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

Any attempt to discuss this film in a standard review would be pointless. This is not a movie about characters or comic situations or special effects or even entertainment, according to the standard use of the term. David Frankel's The Devil Wears Prada belongs in that venerable Hollywood sub-genre - the 90-minute commercial.

Anyone circling 30 like me will surely remember The Wizard, that charming Fred Savage vehicle which promised early and exclusive footage of other kids playing "Super Mario Bros. 3"? And of course, who could forget the Garbage Pail Kids feature-length advertisement that actually opened in a few theaters before everyone realized it was a terrible idea and promptly replaced it with the latest Friday the 13th installment? (The GPK movie, you'll recall, made the odd decision to kill off all the most famous characters. Not a lot of franchises would risk that sort of gruesome brand carnage these days. Can you imagine if all the main characters died at the end of the forthcoming Simpsons Movie?)

So, okay, most films of this sort are like those "free" vacations that scam travel companies are always offering. You think you're getting a ski weekend in Vail, but it turns out you have to sit through 10 presentations about time shares in Hickspittle, Montana first. The Devil Wears Prada promises you a dark, edgy comedy about life in the world's most high-pressure office. Sort of a female counterpoint to Swimming With Sharks. But instead, you get about 5 minutes of actual movie along with 85 minutes of ads for Jimmy Choos.

This may not sour everyone on the movie. After all, I am not the target demographic for couture ads. I don't even mean that in a gender-stereotypical "only girls care about clothes" way. Plenty of guys care about clothes and pay close attention to how they dress. Just not me. I'm totally incapable of dressing with any sort of style. I just throw on stuff if it vaguely appears to match, or at least gets close enough. My mother, upon seeing how I leave my apartment, will occasionally give me fashion "tips": Don't wear blue with black, don't wear jeans out to formal dinners, stop wearing those sweatpants with the oversized hole in the crotchal region. This is roughly like trying to teach a deaf Inuit to speak English by reading him passages from Strunk and White. The boldest fashion statement my regular attire makes is: "This guy eats a lot of foods containing barbecue sauce with a relaxed attitude towards drippage."

My point is, a lot of people who aren't me probably enjoyed this movie because it was all about clothes. If Anne Hathaway modeling a variety of designer outfits sounds appealing to you, I can almost guarantee you will enjoy The Devil Wears Prada. As for me, I was bored by the complete lack of momentum and disappointed that an appealing cast and a promising set-up never once connects.

Aline Brosh McKenna's screenplay comes from the best-selling novel by Lauren Weisberger, based on the author's real experiences working for Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Meryl Streep plays Wintour's stand-in, Runway magazine editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly, making this the second recent film in which she has portrayed a harsh, fictionalized caricature of a notable real-life woman. (In Spike Jonze's Adaptation, of course, she portrayed "The Orchid Thief" author Susan Orlean as a reckless, somewhat disturbed, drug-addicted adulterer.)

Priestly is, as the film's title implies, highly unpleasant. She's pretty much the inverse of Kevin Spacey's Boss from Hell in the aforementioned Sharks. He was loud, crude, aggressive and manic, intentionally pushing everyone's buttons, dominating them through intimidation and fear. Preistly prefers to make outrageous and impossible demands, to sew dischord among her various employees and to give everyone the silent treatment. (Her ridiculously long lists of instructions to assistants are always followed with a withering, "That's all.")

The first of many logical inconsistancies occurs right away, when plucky wannabe journalist Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) accepts a job working for Priestly despite a total lack of interest in fashion. The film lamely explains this discrepancy away by having Andy note that all the other good New York City journalism internships were taken, but it's still hard to see why anyone would put up with Priestly's crap unless they simply had to be on the inside of her particular industry. Wouldn't Andy's career aspirations be better served by actually doing some writing for a smaller magainze or a newspaper? (She declares her intention to write for The New Yorker, not Marie Claire.)

But the film spends very little time developing a plot, so it's in desperate need of a little conflict. If Miranda and Andy could bond about clothes from the get-go, the whole movie would be over after the first reel, and we wouldn't have any opportunity to check out Dolce & Gabbana's exciting new Fall line.

Andy doesn't only clash with Miranda during the year she must spend at Runway before moving on to an exciting position elsewhere. She locks horns repeatedly with Miranda's catty senior assistant Emily (Emily Blunt) and trades occasionally hostile banter with assistant editor Nigel (Stanley Tucci, working overtime to squeeze something salvagable from a nothing character). Andy's slavish devotion to her assistant duties and newfound friendship with a suave fellow journalist (Simon Baker) likewise cause friction with her chef boyfriend (Vinnie Chase). Not one of these stories has a beginning, a middle or an end. They're just situations to which we're introduced, not plots that actually do any unfolding. Andy hates Miranda, then grudgingly grows to respect her, then decides that she really did just hate her all along. The scenes that would normally make up a comedy of this sort, such as Andy's tussles with Emily or relationships woes, are here just filler, segues between the long sequence about handbags and the even longer sequence about scarves.

Take Baker's "journalist" character, Christian Thompson. I put quotes around it because the guy never does a single journalistic thing for the entire movie. He shows up, randomly, wherever the plot demands that he be at any given time and spouts unrealistic expositional dialogue. When Andy nervously accompanies Miranda to a big fashion show, Christian magically pops up just as our hero is making for the exit. When a massive backdoor deal threatens the future of Runway Magazine, Christian turns out to be the whole scheme...somehow. This is not a character, but a device. This makes sense, though, because all characters in commercials are devices - they're never meant to represent a real person with real thoughts and feelings. They're supposed to represent us, the faceless consumer preparing to enjoy this wonderful new product.

So we see Andy struggle at first, but then slowly get the hang of her environment, while at the same time discovering the amazing powers of expensive clothes to improve her outlook and sense of well-being. A scene in which Nigel takes Andy to the secret Runway dressing room where all the free samples are stored (a mythologized, utopian locale also referenced in a "Sex and the City" episode) really lays out the film's worldview: Clothes are very important because they tell the world what kind of person you are and reflect everything about you, from your personality to your worth as an individual.

At the start of the film, when Andy dresses like a schlub, we know she is clueless and unfulfilled. Then she masters her job and, accordingly, dresses nicely, which is a huge improvement. Unfortunately, it turns her into a bitch. Eventually, she finds the proper balance - dressing really well without being a bitch! See, you too can find happiness by only spending all of your after-tax income on fancy shoes and pretty outfits!

The centerpiece of the film is a musical montage in which Andy wakes up, dresses and walks to work. Over the course of what looks like a single day's commute, Frankel cuts between Hathaway wearing, I'd guess, at least 6 or 7 very different outfits. They really should have just made this scene the entire film - Anne Hathaway modeling new clothes and shoes while stalking the streets of New York. And every 15 minutes or so, Meryl Streep could run up and throw a purse at her. Done. Movie. I think audiences would get it. They're clearly not watching this thing for the jokes, because there aren't any.


Peter L. Winkler said...

I'm curious why you rented it. First, it doesn't seem to be the type of film you have an affinity for. Second, you appear to well-informed about pop culture, and most of the reviews of this film were bad. I read the ones at Salon, Slate and Bright Lights Film Journal, and I suspect you scope out freely available reviews too.

Lons said...

Well, I read largely mixed reviews, but I rarely allow other critics to actually influence my viewing selections.

I could say that, as a guy trying to write big Hollywood screenplays, I feel the need to see all the most successful such films in a given year. But really, I just like Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep and thought the thing might be funny.

I mean, I don't care about fashion, but I managed to find "Talladega Nights" entertaining without caring about NASCAR...