The Devil Wears Prada

The first entry in CJR's summer movie club

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.

Priestly, too, is something of an icy gargoyle as portrayed by Streep. It’s scenery-chewing fun, and Streep lets some humanity creep in even as she throws jackets and barbs across the screen, but if I were Wintour, I wouldn’t like to be looking into this mirror. (Apparently, the portrayal is softer than it was in her former assistant Weisberger’s book, which I have not read, and Wintour has told Barbara Walters she enjoyed the film.) The real Wintour, who you can see in documentary The September Issue, a fly-on-the-wall look at the making of Vogue’s September 2007 issue, doesn’t come across as warm and fuzzy, exactly, but there’s an endearing sense of humor there. And she’s in on the joke. Just take a look at this.

Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna and director Frankel do get some things right—the work-life balance for a conscientious Conde Nast-er isn’t always particularly well balanced, for example, and magazine staffers are ruthlessly competitive. (I had to scratch and crawl to be the first Summer Movie Club writer. Okay, not really). And one of the more memorable scenes in the film is also one where the filmmakers actually hit on something very true about fashion magazines: their enormous reach and economic significance. When Andy disdainfully snorts as Priestly ponders a choice between two near-identical belts for a shoot, Priestly puts her in her place with a through-the-production-line explanation of how decisions like this have led to Andy’s own fashion choices. The cerulean sweater Andy wears was a direct result of a 2002 Oscar de la Renta collection from 2002, explains Priestly. The color trend, she says, “filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin….that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.” Fashion is serious, the film pauses to say amid celebrating the industry’s products and lampooning the people promoting them.

The success of Prada has created a new cinematic subgenre that’s been distorting the image of young journalists and news outlets in the years since. The stories are familiar: a plucky young journalist lands a tough job, struggles through it with nary a hair out of place, learns something about herself along the way, and—just when things seem to be going well—is faced with a tough decision. In the terrible Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009), it’s a choice between a job at the Vogue-like Alette and a gig writing serious stuff for her man’s new startup. In the fun Morning Glory (2010), a film by Prada screenwriter McKenna that begins by positing that TV producers look like Rachel McAdams at three in the morning, the choice is between a gig at The Today Show and staying with the smaller morning show she has helped build up. As with Prada, there’s usually a hunk or two involved, and a lot of improbably high-heeled running.

It’s all got me thinking. A certain enterprising young writer might make a bit of money off a Prada-like exposé of this here very po-faced institution. Throw in a spectacular tweed jacket or two, and Hollywood might bite. I’ve already thought of my veiled magazine name: The New York Reporting Review. Now I just have to convince Dustin Hoffman he’s the man to play Mike Hoyt.

Next week: Superman

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , , , , ,