Doodad Kind of Town

When "Feel Good" Movies Don’t Feel Good: "The Devil Wears Prada"
December 19, 2009, 12:50 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

So the other night, I was exhausted after a day of work and Christmas shopping, and decided to kick back with a relaxing, mindless “feel good” flick. After a little channel surfing, I landed on the F/X channel and “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Except there was a problem. I couldn’t experience it as mindless entertainment, because I couldn’t shut my mind off. And I couldn’t call it a “feel good” flick, because I didn’t remotely feel good about what I was watching.

For all its appealing comic performances and slick, stylish production values, “The Devil Wears Prada” is ultimately just one more piece of noxious Hollywood propaganda in which ambitious professional women are vilified and punished, not merely for being good at their work, but for having the audacity to savor the prestige and material rewards of their success. It shows us, yet again, that any woman who dares to occupy an executive suite can not simultaneously be possessed of a soul, a heart or a sustained, loving relationship with a man.

And that’s before we even get to the film’s rank hypocrisy. Set in the offices of the fictional Runway magazine, “Prada” delivers repeated, if feeble, slaps on the wrist to the fashion industry for setting unrealistic, unattainable standards of physical perfection for women. Yet at the same time, it shamelessly invites us to ogle and revel in the cool stuff and glamorous locales this very industry promotes. Not for nothing was the clothing here designed and styled by legendary “Sex and the City” costumer Patricia Field. This film was deliberately marketed to amateur-class fashionistas; when it purports to spit its audience’s enthusiasms back into their faces, it’s hardly credible.

Meryl Streep plays Miranda Priestley, the chic, ice-cold editor of Runway (based, oh-so-loosely on Vogue‘s Anna Wintour) and Anne Hathaway is Andrea, the wide-eyed new college grad who works as her assistant, although she believes she’s better equipped for investigative journalism than for latte-fetching. Miranda, preoccupied with running the magazine and setting fashion trends, is chilly and detached, incapable of small talk and given to pouring out interminable lists of unreasonable demands with no opportunity for clarifying follow-up questions from the beleaguered, befuddled Andrea. Streep has the good sense to play Miranda as soft-spoken , yet intimidatingly withering and brisk at the same moment. Temper tantrums aren’t her style, but her quietly tossed-off sarcasm is every bit as devastating. (“Please move at a glacial pace, you know how that thrills me,” she wearily tells a dawdling underling.) Hathaway, for her part, has an appealing, accessible quality that outweighs her character’s sense of entitlement. So far, so good.

And actually, the first half of the film is kind of fun, in that Andrea not only learns how to work with (or around) Miranda, but she increasingly gets a kick out of her own competence. She trades her schlubby sweaters and scuffed flat shoes for Chanel jackets and heels, and learns how to put on lash-thickening mascara that makes her big, doe eyes positively pop! And Andrea becomes exceptionally good at looking after Miranda, so much so that she unseats snipy little Emily Blunt as Miranda’s primary assistant and lands the coveted assignment of accompanying her to the Paris runway shows.

To my mind, there’s nothing terribly troubling or sinister about all this. This is what we do as young adults: we learn how to persevere and even thrive in tough work situations, we try on new identities, we find out what we love and what we’re good at, and often our lives evolve into something quite different from what what we’d originally imagined.

But, in keeping with its other hypocrisies, “The Devil Wears Prada” encourages us first to marvel at Andrea’s ingenuity and pluck, then to disapprove of the transformation those qualities effect. Youthful ambition and experimentation are equated with betrayal and “selling out.” I can see why Andrea’s friends think that – they’re young and inexperienced themselves – but I’d like to think the screenwriter might have a little more perspective. Alas no, the script (and, I assume, the Lauren Weisberger novel on which it based) lays it all on pretty thick. When Andrea is forced to attend a nighttime fashion event on her boyfriend’s birthday, he lays into her – not for missing his birthday, but for betraying her former “anti-fashion” principles to actually show up for her job, for Christ’s sake! She’s already working at Runway in the daytime, why is it wrong for her to fulfill her work obligations at a nighttime function? IT’S HER JOB! And when Blunt loses her favored spot on Miranda’s staff – and with it, the trip to Paris – Andrea has to tell her, but not at the office. No, the bad news is delivered to Blunt while she’s in a hospital bed with her leg in a cast after being hit by a taxi, so we can’t possibly miss the unfairness of it all.

By all accounts, the film considerably softens the edges on the Miranda Priestley character as compared to the original novel, and in Streep’s typically masterful performance we do see glimmers of Miranda’s superlative fashion instincts and grace under pressure. But she still isn’t allowed to be entirely human or to go entirely unpunished. In the course of the film, her husband walks out (not the first husband to do so, it’s hinted), tired of playing second-fiddle to the magazine. In the scene where Miranda breaks this news to Andrea, she’s shown looking wan and vulnerable, her makeup off but her dignity intact. And though Andrea pushes her, she keeps most of the details to herself and refuses to break down or accept sympathy. You can read that as coldness if you want, but I read it as maintaining a perfectly proper boundary between employer and employee.It’s Streep, in fact, who almost saves the movie, and her nuanced and ultimately sympathetic portrayal of Miranda works against every tired “Boss from Hell”/”Lonely at the Top” bromide the film peddles.

Andrea’s moment of truth comes in Paris when she expresses shock that Miranda has pulled away a plum assignment from her longtime, long-suffering second-in-command (played by a droll and delightful Stanley Tucci) and awarded it to an up-and-coming French editor in order to keep her own position intact. Andrea claims she could never do such a thing, and Miranda points out that she already has: by telling Emily she would not be making the Paris trip. Being in charge, it turns out, means sometimes you have to tell people they aren’t’ going to get the promotion they’ve dreamed of. (Well, duh.) And Andrea recoils in horror at the notion that she could actually be so cold as take away someone’s dreams and goes running back to the allegedly cozier and less mercenary world of investigative journalism.

Couple of things I don’t buy here. First, I don’t care whether you work at Vogue, Runway, or Podunk Weekly. If you’re in an editorial position, someday you’re going to have pull someone off a story or fire someone or otherwise derail someone’s career dreams. Goes with the territory. It isn’t necessarily evil or unethical – if people aren’t performing or aren’t right for some assignment, they need to be told. An employer is not your mother. She’s not going to tell you how beautiful and wonderful you are and feed you cookies and give you hugs; she needs a job done and she wants you to do it. And second, I didn’t feel a whole lot of sympathy for Tucci’s character because if he really wanted to get out from under Miranda’s thumb, maybe he should have used his contacts in the fashion world and found a new job himself, not waited for years and years for his boss to bestow it on him.

But those are realities that aren’t necessarily apparent to young up-and-comers, and Lauren Weisberger was all of 26 when she wrote the novel on which this film is based. This 2003 interview on Salon reveals her to be stunningly disingenuous about the furor her book caused and the offense taken by the fashion publishing industry on Anna Wintour’s behalf. And some of that same disingenuousness finds it way in to the film. Unfortunately, I’m looking at “The Devil Wears Prada” from the other side of 28 years in the corporate workforce, and it all seems pretty whiny (and bordering on offensive) to me. And I’m apparently too old and grouchy to shrug this off as escapist fun. anymore.


4 Comments so far
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Wow. You're a crack shot, my girl. I swear. Sometimes when I read your posts it's like gazing into a luxurious mirror, Patty. (In my case, it would definitely be Art Deco.)When you decide to take something down, you can dismantle it in record time. You don't fool around. Neither do I for that matter. It's scrumptiously awesome. I hated this movie. Unlike you, I had to pay for it. I thought it was completely ridiculous. Your points are all very well considered. Some of them I hadn't even thought of on those particular levels. But you're stunningly right on all counts. Hathaway is my version of kryptonite. (Blunt, for that matter, falls into precisely the same category. The new girls coming up – with the exception of a few like Scarlett Johansson, Rachel McAdams, Hayley Atwell, Sally Hawkins etc. – just aren't doing it for me. They don't possess the classic charisma or unique star quality that inevitably draws me in.) I avoid Hathaway whenever I can. I thought she had a few great moments in her phone call scene at the end of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. She was also a solid foil for Steve Carell in GET SMART. Other than that, I don't find her tolerable. The only things I found palatable about the film were the goddess Meryl and (to a lesser extent) Stanley. But Meryl is so formidable and otherwordly she could make magic reading a cereal box. As you stated, the scene where her husband leaves and she has no makeup on is pivotal. No doubt one of the many reasons she clinched that Oscar nomination. I have no desire to revisit this (EVER) but your review was superbly entertaining (much more than the movie) and extremely imsightful.

Comment by miranda-wilding

Miranda -As always, you are too kind!Myself, I quite like Anne Hathaway – she's not the problem with this film, and in fact, is apprealing enough to make the character far more likable than she might be in other hands.I actually did pay to see this the first time in 2006, and at that time, I enjoyed it. But seeing it again the other night, it just grated on me. I'm so tired of seeing successful women protrayed in "Dragon Lady" terms.

Comment by Pat

The Devil Wears Prada is like a siren song to me. When it's on, I graze through it. It took me a long time to actually watch it from beginning to end. What I like about it are some of the set pieces, as when Andrea surprises Miranda by laying hands on the Harry Potter manuscript, or when Andrea goes to her desk after her fashion make-over and Emily's office friend says, "You look good," only to get an elbow in the ribs from Emily. I like to look at fashion, that's all there is to it.Looking at the film bluntly, it's hard to imagine Andrea being shamed about her sniggering at the supposed difference between two belts by a history lesson on the color cerulean blue. Miranda recites it as though it were the invention of the wheel. But the glamour mystique of the fashion industry felt right, and I could see Andrea kind of falling under its spell.As for her returning to journalism – let's face it, she wasn't doing journalism with Miranda, she was an executive assistant – that made sense. She did come to her senses, and her boyfriend did have a legitimate complaint, in my book. I know that executive assistants are supposed to be on call 24/7, but he was dating a journalist. It was a bait-and-switch for him, and for what? A Chanel handbag and a trip to Paris? What's in it for him? If that sounds unsupportive of a woman's ambition, perhaps if we had Andrea as a cub reporter keeping all hours, he might have been more understanding. Andrea was seduced – she wasn't going after her dream. Her extreme ingenuity and competence was casting pearls before swine, and she eventually realized it.As for successful women being punished, I'm with you all the way on that. We need to stop projecting images of men who won't put up with a success like Miranda, who IS acting out of her own intentions and pursuing the career she always wanted. That it's a career that often hurts women, well, that'll have to come up in another movie.And I like both Emily Blunt and Anne Hathaway a lot.

Comment by Marilyn

Marilyn,Thanks for chiming in. Like you, I like looking at fashion, and in retrospect, may have been projecting a little of my own seduction by the fashion world onto Hathaway's character. I didn't see her transformation from journalist to fashionista as being a betrayal of herself so much as an evolution into something she hadn't originally planned. But I've always read her decision to leave Runway and go back to jounalism not so much a return to her true calling as an escape from having to self-preserving choices that hurt other people.I actually enjoyed "The Devil Wears Prada" just fine when I first saw it. But watching it again last week just hit me wrong, and I think had to do with the way Miranda was portrayed and how (as you note) that fits right in with the usual claptrap about career women being soulless bitches.

Comment by Pat

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