There’s nothing women love more than an ugly duckling story. The idea that beneath those frumpy clothes and horned rimmed glasses lies a stunning knockout has been putting female asses in seats for decades. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. With an entire multi-billion dollar industry out there that exists not only because of, but serves to convince women that they are average, over weight and in need their products to achieve the level of beauty necessary to exist in modern society, it’s kind of nice that there are movies out there to give them hope. That the hope in question is simply that those products will in fact turn them into Julia Roberts or Anne Hathaway is moot. It’s hope. And women eat it up with a spoon.
Enter The Devil Wears Prada, a movie that on the surface seems to be two – two - two movies in one: both an ugly duckling story and an evisceration of the fashion industry that pretty much requires these movies to exist. Except that upon close examination, it really proves to be neither. The Devil Wears Prada is a film that exists on two distinctly different levels, and depending on how you watch films, you can end up seeing one or the other.
The surface story is a simple one. It’s an Ugly Duckling tale about a young girl who goes to work for the Queen Bitch of the fashion industry, only to learn the dreadful truths about staying on top in big business. While simple enough, the transformation and subsequent wardrobe changes were enough to elicit oooohs and ahhhhhs from the largely female audience.
However, just beneath the surface was the story that bowled me over and made me fall in love with this insidious little piece of filmmaking. Because as this film unfolds, you slowly begin to discover that Meryl Streep’s “devil” isn’t thusly named for the reason that she’s a total bitch of a dragon lady, but rather because she very quietly and cunningly transforms Anne Hathaway into everything she once loathed. You see, The Devil Wears Prada isn’t a film about integrity or inner beauty or any of that life affirming garbage. It is a film entirely about how to get someone to drink the Kool-Aid without ever noticing that they’ve so much as taken a swig.
You watch as from minute one Meryl Streep’s ‘Miranda Priestly’ tears down every last ounce of Anne Hathaway’s sense of self-worth, self-confidence and self-respect. Her Ugly Duckling transformation isn’t meant to unlock her beauty within – it’s to make her conform, to rebuild her in the image of the Stepford Assistant Miranda Priestly believes she can create by force of will alone. But what’s so fucking evil and telling about this film is that every step of the way, you as an audience member are cheering Anne Hathaway on. You delight in her sudden transformation, you feel the highs of her showing up her competition, you feel for every pained decision she has to make – and when all is said and done, you realize just how misled you were.
Every decision you cheer on or so much as feel for gets turned around on you, and ultimately you look down to see the rug was tugged out from under you long before you expected it. As you begin to reflect on it all, it sets in as to just how complete the transformation was. The Devil Wears Prada isn’t just an amusing title, it’s a hint at what this is really about. It’s a theory on how the Devil works, even when you know you’re dealing with the Devil. And I dug the living hell out of it.
Now, is this really an evisceration of the fashion industry as it appears, and some have claimed it, to be? Please. Hollywood making a Hollywood film attacking the fashion industry would be like Pat Robertson making a film about how badly gays are treated in this country. It would be hollow hypocrisy. And frankly, this film never tries to flay the industry outside of the comments of Hathaway’s friends – all of which are your standard criticisms meant to ground the film. But there’s nothing scathing or even remotely insulting. Hell, there aren’t even really jokes about models, something you’d think would be the bread and butter of this kind of movie.
Instead, this is entirely a character piece, brought to life with some of the best possible candidates for the roles. Come on, when you need a Midwestern ugly duckling, you can’t do any better than Anne Hathaway. She’s got the lock on the girl-next-door homespun charm in a way that only Julia Roberts possesses, and with the right series of roles over the next decade, she will assume all the roles Julia Roberts will no longer be young enough to play. A generation of women is slowly but surely falling in love with Anne, and this role will only continue that trend. Here she’s great, playing the slow slide into the darkside with all the subtlety that the role requires.
Meryl Streep? Come on. She’s the mold. Given the right roles, Streep outperforms pretty much everyone. And this is one of those roles. Anne Hathaway may be the main character in the film, but there’s no doubt from minute one – this is Meryl Streep’s movie. She’s amazing. Both blatantly bitchy and subtly evil, Streep makes the most out of every moment, especially wringing out every last bit of pathos from the few moments when she’s allowed to be delicately human and frail. Expect no less than her 14th Oscar nomination for this role.
And what would an Ugly Duckling movie be without Hector Elizondo? Wait, what? What do you mean Anne’s already done a film with Hector Elizondo? Well, aren’t there any other cute bald guys out there? Someone’s got to transform our Ugly Duckling! Stanley Tucci? Sure, why not, pull him off of whatever car commercial he’s voicing and get his ass on the set! Tucci is actually fantastic in the Elizondo role, lighting up every scene he appears in with his sardonic charm and classic wit. I love watching Tucci work, and this is the first time in years a role has allowed him to be sweet, rather than his typical (and almost always funny) asshole shtick. Sure, here he’s a sweet asshole, but few are better at playing an wryly funny asshole than Tucci, and his sweet side is perfectly tempered to make this one hell of a well crafted character.
Of course the film's not perfect.
First of all, it is an extremely feminine film, and guys not willing to watch this for the subtext are gonna get bored pretty quickly with the shallowness of the surface story. But my big complaint was just how neatly and quickly the film was wrapped up. Everything works, and it certainly isn’t a shoddy, slapped together mess – but I wanted to see the knife twist just a little more into Hathaway before everything was resolved. Just a wee bit more pain and loss. It was just a bit too quick and easy for my taste – but it does end exactly how it should for this type of film, so I didn’t leave disappointed - just wanting a little more.
All in all, this is a solid film and one worth checking out for anyone interested in watching a piece that not only manipulates you, but has the balls to gloat about it later. Recommended for anyone who enjoys watching a genre film subtly turned on its ear or anyone lacking a “Y” chromosome.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em. I know I will.