The Devil Wears Prada is a film that exists two beats apart from reality. At least. Based on the book of the same clever name, in turn loosely based on author Lauren Weisberger’s experience working for Vogue editor Anna Wintour, it never stood a chance of giving audiences any great insights into the workings of Manhattan’s glossiest. With editors and publishers, and then screenwriters, producers, actors, directors, and costumiers—oh so many costumiers—fussing with the product, Prada was destined to be more the Gap knock-off of a Chanel original than an intricately ruffled, fresh-off-the-runway bit of couture.
Maybe it’s not cinema verité, but it’s fun; a light-as-a-model salt- and butter-free popcorn flick that’s a guilty pleasure for anyone who has ever fiddled with an InDesign layout. And under the piles of designer duds thrown at the screen, you might spot the fuzzy outline of faces and dilemmas from your own past.
Fun is part of the reason that CJR is launching its Summer Movie Club with The Devil Wears Prada—a film concerned with a world we generally ignore, fashioned for an audience who generally ignore us, and which presents an image of the magazine industry as close to reality as an airbrushed Vogue cover is to the featured actress’s actual complexion. Like imagining that chocolate factories really are run by Oompa Loompas, the pure fantasy of it all is a delight. To watch Prada is to learn that an entry level position at Vogue means an unending rotation of designer outfits, a life-defining jaunt to Paris, never ever sweating, and having to fend off the advances of famous and handsome, if lascivious, writers.
A lot of people left cinemas with that impression back during Prada’s 2006 run. Prada is the second-highest grossing Meryl Streep film ever—and, I suspect, the highest-grossing movie to prominently feature journalists that doesn’t involve blue spandex or bionic spiders.
The fantasy of Prada is wrapped up in a “plot,” of course, which functions as a hanger on which the filmmakers drape so much designer fashion, one montage at a time. Our heroine is J-school grad Andrea “Andy” Sachs (Anne Hathaway) who lands a job as the assistant to Miranda Priestly (Streep), the Wintour character perched atop the masthead of Vogue stand-in Runway. To most young journalists, that would be a dream job, but not for Andy, who has split ends and wears sweaters—a rom-com semaphore signal for bookish—or, in Prada terms, someone more New Yorker than Vogue. Andy struggles at first with the disapproving looks from her mantis-like coworkers and her boss’s ridiculous demands, like finding an advance copy of the latest Harry Potter manuscript for Priestly’s kids. But soon, Priestly’s other assistant, the acerbic, yo-yo-dieting Emily (a star-making turn by Emily Blunt), is aggrieved when the new girl starts to catch the boss’s eye. Before you know it, Andy is becoming very much the shallow and shrinking Runway girl, much to the chagrin of her put-upon boyfriend and her sidelined, regular-sized friends.
If you have a stomach for this sort thing, Prada is sharply written, funny, and nicely anchored by Streep’s Oscar-nominated turn as Priestly. Her perfectly eyelined stare will scare the shit out of you. But it’s undoubtedly the mag world as seen through Hollywood’s eyes. For starters, the filmmakers push the ridiculous idea that Hathaway, something of a doe-eyed screen goddess at this stage, is an ugly duckling in need of a makeover. (It worked in The Princess Diaries, so why not?) Then there are the clothes, a parade of designer threads you can’t afford and that will look terrible on your human-sized frame. It’s unsurprising to learn director David Frankel made his name as a director on Sex and the City, which was, after all, a dead accurate portrayal of the daily struggles of a freelancer in New York City. (It’s more surprising to learn his father was Max Frankel, longtime executive editor of the Times.)
I found something a little off, too, in the film’s simplistic overarching message: that in order to be fulfilled, Andy has to go back to turtlenecks and newspaper reporting; back to “serious” journalism. I’ve worked in glossy magazines, schlepping around fashion-shoot props for über-groomed editors, and my colleagues were professionals who took their jobs seriously and produced really great work. They were lovely, generous people to boot.