July 29, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

I can't claim to hold the slightest degree of expertise about fashion, or the culture that surrounds it. I have worn beat up old t-shirts and beat up old jeans (or in this weather, beat up old shorts) every single day, for as long as I can remember. Still, in a perverse way, I admired this film's moral compass. It would have been a wreck for the naive college graduate at the centre of this film, an impulse hire by the titular devil atop the hierarch of a trendy fashion magazine, to somehow elevate such a shallow industry. Even as the trends, buzzwords, and faces change seemingly daily, the fashion industry is and will always be too large to be fundamentally changed by any one person. Likewise, it would have been meaningless to watch that same shallow industry corrupt and deflower the naive college grad's sense of morality. Watching a movie about a character so impotent as to be completely molded and transformed by her environment is, for this reviewer at least, thoroughly uninteresting.
Watching the oppressive and ulcer-inducing fashion industry push that naive college grad, Andrea, down isn't the only thing that makes The Devil Wears Prada so interesting.  A large part of the film's substance comes in watching Andrea push back. It would have been easy to make the title character, fashion mogul Miranda Priestly, the story's outright villain. Miranda's a monster, to be sure. But Andrea's supposed to be an adult now, and the film refuses to let her shirk responsibility.
In one memorable scene, Andrea runs to her superior and office confidante, Nigel, in tears over their boss's latest beastly transgression. Nigel, despite being obviously quite fond of the girl, refuses to give her an inch. Grow up, he tells her, and stop complaining about an opportunity others would kill for. "Other girls dream of working here," he reminds her. "You only deign." In a world increasingly satisfied with the Bare Minimum, how refreshing it is to find a film that expects not merely effort from its protagonist, but passion — and results.
It's also refreshing to find a film that goes beneath the usual noble bohemians oppressive corporate oppressors dichotomy to explore the shifting sands of overlapping moral values. It's easy and popular to say that friends and family should always come above all else. But that course ends on the street with no prospects, what's then? Or how about if making the office first priority is necessary to do the job right? The Devil Wears Prada treats these, shockingly, as serious questions — worthy of exploration and deliberation.
While I admire the film for all of those reasons, it's the characters that allowed me to enjoy it. Meryl Streep, always so irritatingly practiced and deliberate in her roles, finally has found a character her style suits. Anne Hathaway, in her first leading role of any real weight, proves up to the challenge. This is the first time I've seen Emily Blunt, but her turn as the frigid and perpetually emotionally wrecked senior assistant swings wildly from venomous impatience to vulnerable gratitude, to devastated anger. She comes close to stealing every scene she's in. Nigel might be the smallest role I've seen Stanley Tucci in, but it's probably the best. Imbuing the role with kindness, passion, and patience, he steers Nigel through the gamut of emotions with a flamboyant yet mature sort of a courage.
The Devil Wears Prada dresses complex characters with well-suited performances and unveils them in a world full of painful truths that imbue what triumphs there are with real validity. ()


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