Review: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

How, exactly, is Miranda the “Devil”?

The outstanding cast, brisk storytelling and watertight film-making all combine to make The Devil Wears Prada very, very watchable. Which is, perhaps, why (what may be) nitpicking about the story comes between my viewing and my enjoyment of the film. (And though I don’t mean to imply I think this is because of scriptwriter Aline Brosh-McKenna, this isn’t the first working girl comedy of hers I’ve found… confusing in its messaging).

So let’s unpack the confusion here.

Is this working girl comedy about growing wiser, or growing more idealistic? Can it be both? How, or if not, why not?

The only move Miranda Divine (Meryl Streep) makes that is in any way not “nice” is merely a strategic business manoeuver – and yes, it’s not the most “mates before dates” move, but then how many captains of industry got to where they are by trying to make (or keep) friends? And she is revered for being that captain, is she not?

I’m also not really sure that Andy (Anne Hathaway) goes through any development. Her final walk-away moment doesn’t feel particularly victorious to me – abandoning a promising high-powered career high on the air of one’s own righteousness is not a triumph of character, it’s a lifestyle choice. The fact that she walks away is neither good nor bad; the fact that she feels morally superior doing so, and that by extension we’re supposed to feel that way too, contradicts everything the film has actually shown us. What Andy actually rejects is learning; what she’s opted for instead is naïveté. Her character’s lack of growth or understanding of the business world, fashion or otherwise, is laid bare a couple of scenes earlier when shirtless-Simon Baker-Denny, post-lay, lays out for her the behind-the-scenes machinations of the industry, which could be any industry, in which she has chosen to participate. Similarly, Nigel (Stanley Tucci) chides Andy for choosing to remain at a job she doesn’t actually want, and whine about it and pity herself, all while considering it beneath her. And by the film’s end, she still feels that way.

Andy begins and ends the film unemployed. At the film’s beginning, this is seen as a bad thing, something to be remedied with a job – any job – and she happens to luck into the kind of job “a million other girls would kill for”. But by the film’s end, her lack of gainful employment is seen as a good thing, especially if it’s for love – which also conveniently frees her up to follow her man, whom she’s now allowed to get back together with, to another city for the sake of his career.

Not satire, comedy, romance, or character study – but it is ironic… though perhaps not in the way it wants to be?

The premise of The Devil…, as far as I can tell, seems to be that we (the audience) as outsiders have a naïve view of the fashion industry, and that the “average” girl might just as easily trip over and fall into a glamorous career as lose her soul in the process. What makes this telling more interesting is that it actually presents aspects of the industry quite plainly and fairly, and even puts a human face or two on it, while othering the “real” people and their critiques of the industry and those in it. What makes it entertaining is the wonderful, charismatic performances of the former – but which are at odds with the forgettable performances of the latter. This is obviously deliberate, and it creates a little confusion, at least for me.

Is the fashion industry meant to be perceived as glamorous yet sinister, seductive yet ultimately vacuous? The film doesn’t seem to say this – and indeed, there are some succinct, smirking monologues which bulls-eye the relevance and role of the industry in culture. At other times, The Devil… seems to put the fashion industry on the kind of emotional pedestal it (kind of mockingly) chides its audience for potentially doing – and that only creates more confusion for me.

And the confusion for me doesn’t end there. I’m not really sure who or what the satire (if it can be called that) in this film is supposed to be aimed at. The fashion industry characters (Miranda, Emily Blunt, and particularly Stanley Tucci) each have at least one sympathetic moment which adds an extra dimension to what could easily have been lazy caricatures; meanwhile, the more “real” characters (Andy, her friends, and particularly her boyfriend Adrian Grenier) are barely characters at all. Andy at one point mentions that her personal life is “hanging by a thread” – yet there’s been no overt tension from her generally supportive, if passive, boyfriend until after this statement from her. Poor character development? Possibly. Sloppy editing? Also possible. Lack of nuance in Grenier’s performance? Equally possible. Meryl Streep does more with a flicker of her eyes and her unmodulated voice than Grenier does with all his scenes combined. Though, to be fair:

in what universe is a Grenier going to balance out a Streep as opposing forces in a Hathaway’s life?

The Devil Wears Prada trades on what it expects our assumptions about the fashion industry to be, but neither challenges nor reinforces them. It’s not satire, comedy, romance, or a character study – but it is ironic… though perhaps not in the way it wants to be? The film chooses to remain as shallow as it seems to portray the fashion industry as being, and as superficial as it (perhaps deliberately?) renders Andy as a character.

Further Viewing

One voice who could turn me around on this is Michael of the excellent Lessons From The Screenplay, who examines the efficient character- and world-building within the opening minutes of the film (or pages of the script, as is his purview):