August 05, 2006

Pretty Thingy

The Devil Wears Prada is the kind of film listed in critical dictionaries under the heading amusing romp. Filtering classic ingenue-comes-to-big-city-to-make-it-big tales through the fine-mesh silk of the fashion business, it follows starry-eyed Andrea (Anne Hathaway) from the street to the suite, and simultaneously from breathless post-collegiate smugness to Faustian cynicism to, at last, a differently smug and post-cynical, uh, wisdom. Along the way we're treated to a parade of swell and sexy bags, boots, skirts and headgear; a ripping performance by Meryl Streep; a graceful half-turn by Stanley Tucci; and Hathaway's not-altogether-successful stab at becoming today's Audrey Hepburn. Only Streep and the clothes are left standing.

Prada is as much about the mythology of New York as anything else, and accordingly drops itself squarely in the company of films like Stage Door, Sweet Smell of Success, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Andy has arrived in the city with a coterie of amiable college pals, all of whom have somehow landed glaringly awesome jobs. One is a financial analyst. Another is a line cook in a trendy restaurant. A third is — yeah, okay, whatever — the curator of a Soho gallery. But Andy has had no such luck, until now. We're led to believe some kind of HR fluke let her resume climb to the top of the Runway pile, and that's probably just as well, because the only other credible explanation would be alien intervention. Andy is an Earnest Journalist. She was the editor of her college newspaper. She wrote five-part series on the exploitation of janitors' unions. But instead of finding herself in the bustling chaos of a metro desk, she's auditioning for the role of office bitch in the bright, crisp aerie of a fictionalized Vogue. Clips in hand, brave face mounted, she interviews with the Editor-in-Chief herself, played by Streep. Uh huh. With a burst of teacher's-pet sass, she charms the great lady and thus we are off.

For a movie about sexy clothes, Prada serves up an awful lot of rescue and redemption. Andy's comes first, of course: she must be saved from what the filmmakers seem to think of as reverse snobbishness: her newspaper-editing, union-loving conviction that fashion is, well, a giant pile of horse manure, however sweet-scented and easy on the eyes. Andy's politics manifest themselves in clothes, of course: bad clothes. Frumpy sweaters, disheveled shirts, and — eek — flat shoes. With a weird defensiveness — almost, really, as if they feared they'd invested their entire lives in a pile of horse manure — the staff of Runway commence their contemptuous assault. When Andy involuntarily sneers at one staffer's accessory anxiety, she's treated to a scornful dressing-down by Streep's Miranda Priestly. The point of said dressing-down is that fasion is a multibillion-dollar industry employing boatloads of people and one way or another clothing the world, and that in recognition of this fact Andy might demonstrate a little respect. It's an argument the fashion industry's made with increasing shrillness for decades now. It isn't enough, I guess: all those parties, those high-blown salaries and expense accounts, the hobnobbing and general indulgence in all forms of fabulousness. They need us to take them seriously too. Well, all right; Miranda's speech is accurate enough, if not complete; and Andy is duly chastised. The film stops Miranda before she reaches the effects of globalization or her multibillion-dollar industry's exploitation of third-world labor, but we can hope at least that those toiling in the sweatshops of Indonesia are swathed in the correct shade of blue. Correction: make that cerulean.

Andy's redemption is completed by Nigel (Stanley Tucci), Miranda's right hand and the only one at Runway aside from Miranda herself who seems to have any, well, fashion sense. Nigel takes Andy under his wing. I can hear computer keys clacking at this very moment, loosing an endless stream of dissertation chapters on gay men's service as the fulcrums of wayward straight girls' salvation. You've seen it before and you will see it again. Nevertheless, Tucci strides bravely on. He gives us classic Hollywood queeniness but with a light, wholly credible touch. His role is to further educate Andy in (a) the gravitas of fashion, not only as economic powerhouse but as art (Lagerfeld and Avedon got their starts in this business, we are reminded); (b) the furtive dreams of alienated young gay men and the place of fashion in them; and (c) how to dress like a serious hottie.

Andy comes around. It's startlingly easy, in fact: the whole process takes a two-minute montage. The film seems to believe its lectures on fashion's weightiness, and there's in the end no reason it shouldn't. But they, and Andy's embrace of them, might have been more convincing if her transformation included a visit to an early Arbus exhibit, or to the Met's costume collection. Or even to Koolhas's Prada flagship. No such luck. We're meant to be satisfied, I guess, with just how much better Andy begins to look.

And she does. Whatever else takes place, The Devil Wears Prada never loses sight of Runway's subject, which is the film's true subject too: fabulous clothes. I am no fashionista (though I'm married to one). I'm not even particularly sensitive to the finer points of individual style. But there's no question that the clothes in this film — and everyone and everything around them — look great. In fact, the best argument for fashion's transformative artfulness comes not in lectures by Miranda or Nigel but in the obsessively wordless, fetishistic sequences in which clothes get pulled on and taken on parade. This is how the film opens, in a montage by which the female body is broken down not so much to respective parts as to the parts it must accessorize. We get the boot, we get the belt, we get the necklace, the earring, the eyeliner brush; and the women who wear them — not characters but potential characters: the power-trading, ladder-climbing New York dolls who are this industry's primary targets, putting its product to use in the field — are like exquisitely crafted gallery walls, displaying the work to most flattering effect. Parallels to Andy's curator friend's work are not accidental. Nor is the reflexive passage of Andy's own transformation, in which the opening's "parts" are reassembled in a series of ensembles that demonstrate Andy's pulling herself together for the job. By the end of the sequence, Andy is twenty pounds and two sizes lighter, visibly part of the Runway clan. (Losing weight, getting a haircut, and dressing up apparently do wonders for one's phone and computer skills, by the way — and improve short-term memory and stress management, too.)

Luscious wardrobes aside, though, Prada is halfhearted about most of its material. That's most glaring in the relationship between Andy and Nate (Adrian Grenier, of Entourage fame). We're given old-shoe intimations, but we never see the old shoe's sole. Is it suede? Patent leather? Tie-on or loafer? Nate makes sandwiches for Andy late at night. With Jarlsberg. (Why Jarlsberg?) We're to assume, I guess, that this is an old college ritual. But so are bong hits, quarters, and water-balloons. There's less chemistry between the characters than between Nate and the stove, so who cares? Nate's cute in a cut-rate Mark Ruffalo way, but he's charmless. More to the point, he's passionless, which isn't even true of Andy's other friends, and certainly isn't true of the Runway crowd. Call them what you will, those others have obsessions. Nate only has bed-head and petulance. All that keeps us anywhere near his corner is the obvious, over-the-top, ham-fisted smarminess of his rival for Andy's affections.

Speaking of this guy, it's hard to know who he's modelled on. Norman Mailer? Christopher Hitchens? Both have the requisite crossover lit-cred, but both also have cutting wit and a gift for repartee, which would seem to disqualify them. Scarf-draped and slouching, Christian Anderson (Simon Baker) sloths his way through scenes on half a grin and half a shave. He's got editors all over town, we're told, from New York to the New Yorker to, well, Runway itself; what they edit is anyone's guess. He's the roguish freelancer, the belles lettres bon vivant whose journalistic bona fides are Andy's envy and whose high-living, James Bondish style are her eventual, if fleeting, desire. We smell trouble from a mile away. Andy seems to as well. Thus the consummation has a perfunctory quality to it, an almost postmodern cognizance of the fulfillment of narrative obligation: as the rake, he must bed her; as the ambitious ingenue, she must be bedded. Off they go, getting it over with. In Paris, no less. The next morning she's off like a shot, one more coming-of-age ritual checked off her list. And off we, the audience, go as well. Was the sex bad? Was the sex good? Was there a jolt for our heroine in her first erotic experience with someone other than Nate in what has presumably been years? We don't know. The movie doesn't care. Instead of insight we get fresh MacGuffin: our rake is more than a rake, it turns out, in a scene as trumped-up as the rake himself. He's a villain. As if we couldn't have guessed.

It's always darkest before the dawn. Andy must save the day. But the day, it turns out, has already been saved, though that precludes neither halfhearted triumph nor halfhearted suspense. It also, sadly, does not preclude one more moment of sentimental pedagogy, this one the fulcrum of Andy's final redemption. In saving the day for herself, Miranda has stepped heavily on beloved Nigel's lifelong hopes. Andy is aghast at this, prompting Miranda to discourse upon the Faustian bargains one must make in getting to, and staying on, the top. Why, even Andy herself has made such bargains, Miranda suggests; and Andy, aghast again but now at herself, leaps from the jet of her own ambition to tumble back to earth. She walks off the Big Gig and finds her way at last to that crowded Metro desk. One assumes an attendant shucking of haute Manhattan for off-the-rack Astoria or Bay Ridge is soon to follow, but we don't see it.

Streep, as has widely been noted, is a delight. Deep into her career, her gift for comedy seems to be gathering appreciation. It's a big gift — big enough, even, to bring life to films that are otherwise pret-a-porter. The timing of her snips and barks here are impeccable, the elegant brutality of her carriage a bright glass giving onto Miranda's imperious soul. She is Cruella DeVille hammered into real life, high-relief but well shy of cartoon. She energizes the screen so profoundly we feel Andy's terror of her, and we feel, too, a little lustful, always anxious to greet her return. Her bitchiness is a manifestation of fashion itself: beautiful but unapproachable, autocratically sexy; we can't help but want to try it on.

But thank god we don't have to wear it every day.