The Devil? Ha! My Ass.
The Devil Wears Prada / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | July 6, 2006 | Comments ()
Here’s a tip I’m guessing only a Pajiba critic would be careless enough to admit: Nine times out of 10, a movie reviewer’s decision to read a film’s source material in advance of the flick is less about well-researched diligence and more about simple egotism. Reading a shitty novel that will no doubt be translated into a shitty film allows us to put aside our high-minded literature for a few days and lower ourselves to the level of your average Stephen King-reading beachgoer and then spend the first paragraph or two of our review mocking the film’s source material for its sheer, simple-minded idiocy. I mean, c’mon: What self-respecting critic would choose to read a novel of the chick-lit variety without the intention to belittle and scoff?
And I’ll concede that, when I walked into my local indie bookstore — where bestsellers are arranged nicely upon a shelf for patrons to point and laugh at — that I’d relished the opportunity to pretentiously elevate my own highfalutinness by name-dropping Franzen or DFW (and using only his initials to emphasize the point) to the detriment of anyone who would willingly condescend to pick up a copy of The Devil Wears Prada. But hell if I didn’t gobble up the pages like a fat man gulps down a box of Milk Duds. At the risk of alienating my football buddies, I’ll admit that reading Prada was almost liberating, like finally giving in to the Harry Potter phenomenon and realizing anew the escapist powers of fiction. I’ll even go one better: Lauren Weisberger’s novel was like American Psycho without the gruesome killings or “Sussudio” — a wordy treatise on high-fashion wrapped into a story about the most deliciously evil goddamn woman I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about. And I’ll admit I knew almost nothing of Anna Wintour (the editor of Vogue, upon whom the “Devil” is supposedly based) before last week, but if she’s anything like Prada’s Miranda Priestley, she makes Swimming with Sharks’ Buddy Ackerman seem like Winnie the Pooh after three jars of honey and a couple of Valium.
But how, you might ask, does it work as a film? Well, I’ll tell you: The cinematic interpretation of The Devil Wears Prada is one giant, bullshit cliche. Why? Because the dimwitted, insipid, moronic excuses for a director and a writer (David Frankel and Aline Brosh McKenna, respectively) have apparently decided that their target audience couldn’t stomach a film about a hellish boss and the way in which she breaks down your psyche, screws over your life, and deflates your ego to the betterment of nothing. No. Instead, these jackasses thought that we needed The Princess Diaries 3, the one where Mia Thermopolis goes to New York City, tries on fancy dresses, and makes out with Aquaman. It’s a farce, people. It’s a film aimed at 14-year-old girls who find High School Musical a wee bit subversive for their tastes. This adaptation has sucked every iota of joy-filled tension out of the source material and traded it for a fucking feel-good Hillary Duff film. Seriously, I haven’t been this disappointed in a big-screen translation since the Farrelly Brothers made a mockery of Fever Pitch; but with Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, at least I expected to hate it. But here, we have Meryl Streep, one of the greatest actresses in the history of film, and Anne Hathaway, who had just turned in a remarkable, chest-baring performance in Brokeback Mountain that made you completely forget about Ella Enchanted. I tell you: It’s like somebody pulled the wool over our eyes, kicked in us in our collective teeth, and pawned our gold-fillings for tickets to a McFly concert.
The Devil Wears Prada tracks Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), a homely, fat Northwestern grad (inasmuch as you can believe that Hathaway is “fat” or “homely”) with no fashion sense, who stumbles inadvertently into a job at Runway magazine as an assistant to Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep), the editor in chief. In the book, at least, Priestley is about the vilest, most despicable villainess you could ever love to hate, whose complete indifference to Andy’s mere existence is a source of constant humiliation. She asks Andy to perform impossible tasks and, when she fails, Priestley inflicts unheard-of levels of psychological torture; if she succeeds, Andy gets a thankless flick of the wrist for her efforts. Indeed, in the novel, Miranda is a soulless dictatorial editrix whose only source of redemption comes by way of a backwards compliment delivered in the penultimate chapter. More than anything, in fact, the novel is a simple revenge fantasy, where all things lead to an ultimate, expletive-filled comeuppance.
But aside from character names and a similar premise, the book and the film part ways both tonally and thematically. In David Frankel’s absurd excuse for a movie, Miranda doesn’t even rise to the level of caricature. In fact, this Miranda is instilled with a touch of humanity — hell, she’s almost lovable — who gets mildly annoyed with Andy for failing to bring her coffee on time, delivering to her an icy glare that’s supposed to provide some insight into her character. But we don’t pay to see The Mildly Annoyed Woman with Sunglasses Wears Prada. Where is all of her vicious indifference, or the cowering, bile-churning anxiousness that it inspires? Certainly, Streep looks the part — sunglasses, snow-white hair, and a dominating wardrobe — and you can almost feel that she wants to inhabit her novelized counterpart. Unfortunately, the script gives her very little to work with besides asking her to throw her coat upon Andy’s desk over and over while some insipid montage-ditty plays overhead, revealing very little of the novel’s glorious condescension. The book was fueled by this inescapable tension that slowly blossomed with no outlet for diffusion as Andy’s life hurled into a gossipy downward spiral. In the film, however, Andy tediously fails, then overcomes, resulting in series of small victories that Weisberger never would’ve allowed; indeed, her tension is simply exchanged for bumbling pratfalls and a wisecracking gay man (Stanley Tucci), who apparently went to the Michael Bay School of Gay Stereotypes before showing up on the set.
But no Anne Hathaway film, seemingly, is not without its Eliza Doolittle moment, so we are blessed with the requisite makeover scene (to the tune of Madonna’s “Vogue,” no less), as she morphs into a better-dressed version of her vapid character, who is now increasingly capable of meeting Miranda’s demands. However, her metamorphosis is not fully complete until she begins ignoring her boyfriend, Nate (who I’d pictured looking like Jonathon Safran Foer, but who is instead played by Adrien Grenier, who spends his little screen-time seemingly hoping that Turtle might help him to escape), in favor of a fashion writer, played almost unrecognizably by Simon Baker. This all, of course, leads ultimately to an empty, formulaic denouement that has been done a million times in a million films, involving a revelatory speech and the chucking of a goddamn cell phone into a body of water.
However, as a quick glance over at Rotten Tomatoes (77 percent favorable) suggests, clearly, I’m in the minority here, as most critics fell in love with the movie and even displayed a moderate distaste for the novel, which is a complete mystery to me. Perhaps they were won over by the film’s eye for fashion, or maybe they simply refuse to bash any film that would have Meryl Streep in the lead role, or maybe I’m just flat-out wrong. I don’t know. But to me, The Devil Wears Prada is a complete waste of Streep’s talent and a missed opportunity to create a truly heartless bitch instead of a cop-out with a soft center hidden beneath her Marc Jacobs bag. The book, which was advertised as a chick-lit roman à clef, felt more to me like an adult novel that just happened to feature female characters. The movie, however, feels like something less than chick-lit — a compromised tweeny-bopper flick bastardized by a Hollywood studio system that is even more patronizing than Miranda Priestley was meant to be.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in a blue house with his wife in a hippie colony/college town in upstate New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.