By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006
Take a popular book and turn it into a feature film and its readers immediately have these nagging worries. Will it be true to the story? Will readers feel let down by the casting? Can the big screen capture the power of the printed word?
But that's "The Da Vinci Code."
In the case of "The Devil Wears Prada," there was a different challenge: If the original novel -- as popular as it was -- has a thin plot, mediocre writing and a trite ending, how do you make it work as major motion picture?
In this case, the answer appears to be: Hire Meryl Streep.
The 20th Century Fox version of "Prada," which opens today, is so much better than the novel -- more delightful, more entertaining, more delicious in its meanness, that it almost sends readers back to the book to see whether they missed something the first time.
Let's just sit back and enjoy Streep instead. Director David Frankel (whose "Sex and the City" pedigree is in wide evidence here) clearly hit the jackpot when Streep took the part of Miranda Priestly, the titular "devil" of the story -- the driven, self-absorbed, demanding editor-in-chief of Runway, the bible of New York fashion magazines. With her punishing ways, Miranda is unable to keep a decent assistant. Her latest hire is Andy Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway), the smart girl who eschews fashion (at first) and arrives at her new job at Runway head-to-toe out of place. She wants to be a serious writer. Her clothes are all wrong. She is horrified by Miranda's demands, even though they are legendary to anyone who knows anything about the industry. She is told, umpteen times, that thousands of young women would die for her job.
Can Andy survive a year of Miranda and, in return, win a recommendation that will get her in the door at any magazine in Manhattan? That, in essence, is the plot of the film.
Streep makes it work. Streep makes it fun . Best known for her dramatic brilliance, Streep has done strong comedic turns in the past (particularly in "Postcards From the Edge"), and this performance is a reminder of that, and then some. Miranda is riveting -- when she's in the room, every muscle fiber of every other human being in her general proximity is acutely aware of, in awe of, and afraid of her presence. When Streep's on the screen, she has the same effect on her audience; she totally commands every scene. She does mean with brilliance, able to appall and amuse all at once. And in those moments where we're meant to see Miranda as a rather sad soul, one perhaps even worthy of pity, she carries it off while still projecting Miranda's adamant invulnerability.
Her performance brings to mind Diane Keaton's Oscar-nominated role in the romantic comedy "Something's Gotta Give" two years ago, simply because it's so rare to see women over 50 get such juicy roles in comedies these days. And while Keaton got a stronger script -- and the fabulous Jack Nicholson as her foil -- Streep's turn is just as impressive.
The other leading character in "Prada" also demands a lot of eye-popping screen time. Sorry, Ms. Hathaway, but we're talking about fashion itself. The clothes! The shoes! The bags! The other major advantage the film has over the book is the ability to actually show the fashion, and sequences in the movie provide a dizzying array of designer duds. We've got Chanel, we've got Calvin Klein, we've got Dolce & Gabbana, we've got Bill Blass, we've got Prada (natch). . . we could go on. (It helped the movie budget that most of the clothes came on loan).
The up-close look at the inner workings of such a glam industry is a big part of what made the novel such a sensation. That, and its back story: "Prada" was written by Lauren Weisberger, a onetime assistant to Anna Wintour, legendary editor of Vogue, and Streep's character is clearly patterned on Weisberger's former boss. Valentino makes a cameo appearance, as does model Giselle Bundchen.
As Andy, Hathaway is perfectly respectable, but it feels like she's channeling her signature character, Princess Mia of Genovia, into some kind of third version of the "Princess Diaries" films. She starts out with the casual clothes and uncoiffed hair, loyal friends and fierce belief that she's fine exactly as she is. But then there's a life-transforming visit to Runway's famed wardrobe closet, a stop at hair and makeup, and -- voila! -- Andy's sporting thigh-high black Chanel boots and looking as fab as the models and staffers who "clack" their way through the magazine's halls in their oh-so-high Jimmy Choos.
The film gets the fashion industry, and that certainly helps. Sure, there are plenty of the cliched (but true-to-life) references to the models and assistants living their lives in fear of food and fat ("just one stomach flu away from my goal weight!" says Andy's fellow assistant, the already emaciated Emily). But an early-film treatise from Miranda on the economic power of the fashion world -- not in the book, by the way -- makes sure viewers realize that fashion is not all about hot models and perfect shoes. It's a feudal system, one in which the color choice for this season's must-have designer belt -- a decision made, of course, by the royals -- dictates what shade sweater Kmart will be selling to the serfs next year. And Miranda is its undisputed queen.
In supporting roles, Stanley Tucci does a divine job as Nigel, Miranda's catty art director, who calls poor Andy (size 6, gasp!) "the smart fat girl" and, upon spying her lunch selection in the company cafeteria, says, archly, "You do know that cellulite is one of the chief ingredients in corn chowder?" But Nigel's also the architect of Andy's outward transformation and, eventually, her one real friend at the magazine.
Adrian Grenier, star of HBO's "Entourage," plays Andy's devoted boyfriend, who makes her grilled-cheese sandwiches with gruyere at midnight (he's an aspiring chef) and is at first bemused, then completely confounded, by his girlfriend's transformation. He's rumpled and quite pretty to look at, though his character is really around only to show that Andy's makeover is not just skin-deep.
Ah, but what about beauty, power, success? Does anyone not want that? Well, let's not spoil the ending (as obvious as it might be to even those who have not read the book). But late in the film, after Andy is absolutely gobsmacked by how vicious her boss can be, Miranda turns to her and says in a perfectly confident, serene voice:
"Everybody wants to be us."
No, Meryl, everybody wants to be you .
The Devil Wears Prada (109 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for partial nudity (models in lingerie) and some sexual situations.