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Every third movie or so, Meryl Streep does something swell--and effortless, which isn't one of her defining qualities--to renew her membership in the Great Actress pantheon. "The Devil Wears Prada," a surprisingly sharp adaptation of the Lauren Weisberger bestseller, features Streep as Miranda Priestly, monstrously self-centered editor of the Vogue-like Runway magazine. It's an occasion for Streep to play against a stereotype, and win. It's a rout, in fact.
Lowering both her voice and her destroy-the-minion gaze, Streep adds lethal dashes of imperious nastiness as well as subtle pathos to a potentially monotonous gorgon. No "potentially" about it on the page: Weisberger's popular 2003 plane-and-beach title went on to claim awards for "the whiniest book set in Manhattan publishing world ever" and "whiniest book in history, period." The young author based her tell-all on an unhappy stint as underling of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. It came out at the tail-end of America's "Sex and the City"-fed obsession with Jimmy Choo pumps, which I may look into someday if our old sump pump ever gives out.
Weisberger treated Miranda as a fashion fascist version of Tom, of "Tom and Jerry" cartoon fame, with less overt violence. The character we were supposed to be rooting for, personal assistant Andrea "Andy" Sachs, was Jerry the mouse, her innate good cheer ground into powder by her newfound, eating-disordered environs, but triumphant in the end. "The Devil Wears Prada" had no sex, scant zingers and only its hiss-the-boss and roman a clef angles to push it through to bestsellerdom.
Wisely, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna and director David Frankel have retained the book's title and premise and scrapped most of the rest. It's a loose adaptation and far better as a result. Anne Hathaway makes an ingratiating Andrea, who yearns for a career as a writer but decides in the meantime to accept the personal-assistant job at Runway. Hathaway knows how to get an audience on her side--she's likable and funny. Upon hearing she is to accompany the silver-haired meanie Miranda to Paris for the annual fashion show, Hathaway delivers a quick series of sputters and snorts that make sense in character terms and make you, the viewer, smile.
Stanley Tucci dines out on the role of Andrea's mentor and sounding board, Nigel. (Like Miranda, this originally British character has been Americanized.) Tucci times every predictable gay-confidant jape so unerringly, even the scenes that go nowhere in particular have a nice tang to them. He accomplishes in his role what Streep accomplishes in hers, cutting a human being out of the cloth of cliche. Early on Streep has a scene with Hathaway wherein she explains where Andrea's unfashionable turquoise sweater fits in the overall fashion food chain, and why. (All credit to screenwriter McKenna for her finesse here.) The movie works because of this speech, and the way Streep underplays it. And for proof of what a wily performer can do simply by casting a line so it arches downward before hitting its target, listen to how Streep's Miranda tosses off the insult: "It's just baffling to me."
As Andrea starts changing her image, wardrobe and priorities to suit her heinous new job, she dresses more and more like a Cher-hair drag queen. The film doesn't quite have the perspective to make fun of this. The film does, however, find a way to integrate one-third of its romantic triangle--rich, bad-boy writer Christian, played by Simon Baker--into the plot more effectively. (The other third of the triangle, Andrea's live-in boyfriend, is played by "Entourage" regular Adrian Grenier.)
Director Frankel's movie is piffle, but it's piffle with a lively sense of humor. "Don't make me feed you to the one of the models," Nigel threatens at one point. Consider "The Devil Wears Prada" an attractive makeover of the original.