Aspiring journalist Andrea (Anne Hathaway) has received a shot to work at the prestigious fashion magazine “Runway.” The catch is she’s the new junior assistant to the industry’s most feared and respected editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Finding her minimum wage bohemia clashes with the haute couture workplace, Andrea undergoes a slick transformation, emerging a top drawer assistant, dragged into Miranda’s icy world and neglecting her boyfriend (Adrian Grenier, doing his best brick wall impression) and family as she’s slowly consumed by the demands of her job.
“Devil Wears Prada” aims to dramatize the fashion industry much like every other film about the fashion industry: as a soulless black hole of contempt, judgment, and snobbery. “Prada” is based on a best-selling slice of insider fiction by Lauren Weisberger and should be a film teeming with delicious dish on fashion’s most influential and loathed. Instead, director David Frankel and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna have decided to make a television movie-of-the-week, taking significant sting out of the material.
Softening the bite of Weisberger’s novel is one thing, but the filmmakers have defanged the entire idea, choosing to turn Andrea’s trip to hell and back into a series of pre-digested “I heart New York” sequences aimed at the average Perez Hilton reader. There is fun early on in the film witnessing Andrea’s baptism by fire, mesmerized as she speeds around the city running errand after errand, trying to keep up with Miranda’s insane demands. Played with appropriate wide-eyed disbelief by Hathaway (a wonderful, natural actress), the early going gives the audience a genuine view of the character’s isolation in the fashion world, and offers the right tempo for the whole endeavor: farcical, fast, and at least attempting some comedy (to me, it never made it to genuine laughs).
As Andrea gets trapped in Miranda’s quicksand, Frankel puts his history directing “Sex and the City” to good use by cribbing the small screen structure of vocational betrayal and personal neglect to capture melodramatic scenes that are just so last season. “Prada” starts to feel agonizingly manufactured as it assembles roadblocks for Andrea’s happiness, hastily sketching a love interest in Christian (Simon Baker), a sleezeball journalist Andrea improbably falls for and someone McKenna doesn’t know how to successfully place in the whirlwind of the plot. “Prada” gets sloppy as it tries to condense Weisberger’s structure, and Frankel gets boorish trying to sell the blitzkrieg of New York social demands and viper-pit fashion figures without a wisp of originality. Yes, if you can believe it, there’s actually a montage scored to Madonna’s “Vogue.” That’s how much a pushover directing job this is.
But there’s always Meryl Streep.
Consistently the rose on top of any pile of garbage, Streep’s performance as Miranda is what “Prada” should’ve used as the standard for depth for the entire production. This is a lusciously internalized piece of acting. Streep’s Miranda is a chainsaw blade in the flesh; wielding her years of wisdom and fame to bring anything with ambition and disrespect down to their knees. Streep is chilly perfection, keeping her face tight and judgmental, and choosing her words carefully so they land perfect Jason Voorhees-style machete strikes on their intended victims. Steep embodies the character so well that she even survives the attempts by Frankel to destroy the very essence of her character in the finale, maintaining a sublime concentration that’s bulletproof to the unstoppable mediocrity of “The Devil Wears Prada.”Rating: C-