The Devil Wears Thin

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"I decided to take a chance," Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) muses aloud, "and hire the smart, fat girl." Said smart, fat girl, otherwise known as Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway), is, naturally, present to hear this rumination on the hiring practices of the haughty editor of the haute fashion magazine Runway. She has just made some forgivable beginner's mistake in her new job as Miranda's second assistant — the one who brings in the coffee and picks up the dry cleaning — and she is, incidentally, not fat by any standards other than those that pertain in the skin-and-bones world of high-gloss women's publications. She is, however, smart — especially in The Devil Wears Prada's early going — when she's wearing her ratty working journalist clothes and sporting her total ignorance of, and contempt for, the deeply silly values Runway promotes. In context, it imparts to her an air of mystery.

This, of course, piques Miranda's interest. What in the world is this silly goose doing in her swan-like presence? Streep is, predictably, a marvel as Miranda — flapping her wings, nipping at her perpetually frightened flock, hissing her contempt for their frightened ways. She is always softly wondering why it is such a "challenge" for her car not to be present exactly when she needs it. Or why the staff is late for the meeting she's moved up the time for. Or why someone dares to propose a feature on enamel costume jewelry when they did the same feature two years ago. If this movie, which is based on a roman a clef by Lauren Weisberger, who once worked in publishing for real-life sacred monster Anna Wintour, had concentrated fully on Miranda's essentially motiveless malignity, it might have been a great black comedy.

But Miranda slowly recedes from the movie's gaze. It wants to concentrate on the politically (and. more important, demographically) correct Andrea. Its prime audience is young women in the early stages of their career facing hard choices — glam jobs vs. meaningful work, nice dull guys vs. gorgeous, morally slippery hunks — getting seriously tempted, but eventually choosing the right path. Worse, the screenwriter (Aline Brosh McKenna) and the director (David Frankel) decide to show us Miranda's human side. She hates her "dragon lady" reputation, feels guilty over her several divorces and is eventually reduced to telling Andrea that she doesn't care what the tabloids say about her, but does worry about the effect of sleazebag journalism on her young, twin daughters.

Oh, boo-hoo. The movies have been telling these career-girl romances since Joan Crawford was a pup, and the notion that hard-driving bosses may have hearts of nougat underneath their crunchy dark chocolate coats is not exactly a novel one either. You can't blame Hathaway, who is a winsome actress, for this resort to cliché. When she has to out-maneuver Miranda's other assistant (Emily Blunt) for the most favored spot in the executive suite, she shows plenty of moxie. You're not exactly certain she knows exactly what she's doing, but you also see that she has an unacknowledged instinct for the jugular, which she ever so sweetly deploys. You surely can't blame Streep for letting Miranda's mask (white blonde mane, white-on-white makeup) slip from time to time — especially since she so quickly recovers from these shows of vulnerability; you have to wonder, in these moments, if they are part of a game she's playing, trying to seduce Andrea over to the dark side.

You can't even blame the filmmakers for mounting a seemingly ludicrous defense of Runway and its ilk. They have Miranda say that what her rag proposes as ultra chic one year eventually trickles down to Wal-Mart, where , in knock-off form, it makes everyone a little happier. This struck me as a pretty desperate rationalization. But then I glanced around the theater where I happened to be catching an early morning show of The Devil Wears Prada. It was full of large women in blue jeans who were not present to enjoy Andrea's moral triumph over the temptations of La Dolce Vita. They were there for the clothes, the bright chatter, the pretty people, the handsome arrangement of every shot in the picture. Who can blame them? I liked all that stuff myself. It is wonderful to see New York (or Paris) looking like their old movie selves (though I did not, darn it, spot a white piano). OK, Andrea has to do a lot of demeaning fetching and carrying, but in return she gets to wear lots of swell outfits, go to A-list parties and flirt with devastating immoralists. In that somewhat limited sense, the movie is, I think, a triumph. And I feel ungrateful — even a little ashamed — that the dour side of me wanted kept wanting Andrea to seal her pact with the smartly shod devil and go straight to hell. That's for another picture — one that no one will ever want to see.