(PG-13) 3 stars
Meryl Streep is a terrific movie actress. In the event that you need to be reminded of this fact, you can count your blessings: Chances are there’s a mini Streep festival going on this summer at a theater near you. Once you’ve caught her playing an unrequited country warbler in A Prairie Home Companion, you can go down the hall at the multiplex and see her morph into a tyrannical high-fashion queen in The Devil Wears Prada. It’s a masterfully modulated performance that brings a welcome edge to an otherwise predictable film.
You’ve seen this story before. An idealistic young woman (played here by Anne Hathaway) goes to the big city (Manhattan) to make a career for herself. In this case, she gets her foot in the door as the personal assistant to the editor-in-chief of a Vogue-style magazine called Runway. The boss is all but impossible to work for, but what some see as self-absorbed sadism others recognize as life lessons that must be absorbed if one is to succeed in a competitive, all-consuming profession. Our heroine, it seems, will have to choose between a life based upon professional glamour — and a life.
Hathaway, with her quarter-size brown eyes, is an apt choice for the innocent abroad. And Stanley Tucci is marvelous as her tour guide. Like Streep, he resists the temptation to turn his character into cardboard camp, choosing instead to emphasize the fact that while the people at the top of this particular pile may be neurotic and weird, they are also truly dedicated and very, very good at what they do.
Where the performances by Streep and Tucci suggest there’s more to fashion than meets the eye, director David Frankel sticks to the surface of this story. Like Pygmalion, Hathaway’s character is transformed from awkward duckling to swan. That is, she gets a make-over and a new wardrobe. These visual touches stand for her growing confidence and competence on the job. But the rest of us learn little, if anything, about how influential magazines or, for that matter, the fashion industry actually work. Opportunities for revealing backstage machinations are glossed over for the sake of a well-worn parable in praise of the virtues of personal integrity.
In this, The Devil Wears Prada isn’t nearly as wicked — or as funny — as it might have been. Its reliance on the formulaic comforts of an all-too-familiar Midwestern morality makes it feel, at times, more like a movie-of-the-week than sly exposé. Except, that is, when Streep and Tucci take things in hand. “Everybody wants to be us,” says Streep’s Miranda to her young protégé. This could have been a punchline; thanks to Streep it becomes a complicated proposition — and for the rest of us, it’s delicious.