The Devil Wears Prada
Directed by David Frankel | 20th Century Fox | 106 minutes
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Adrian Grenier, Tracie Thoms, Simon Baker, Emily Blunt, Alexie Gilmore, Rebecca Mader, Stanley Tucci

Although I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this film, I would be a hypocrite if I did not admit to enjoying it. Unlike the computer-generated, special effects nonsense that reigns at the box office today, this is a real movie. It has characters, superb acting, a plot with a beginning, middle, and end, and from start to finish it looks good. It is the first feature film from David Frankel, who previously worked in television.

It tells the story of a young girl from the provinces (a recent journalism grad from Northwestern University) who attempts to make her way in the great city, New York. Its heroine, Anne Hathaway, the heroine, enters a sea of sharks, barely knowing how to swim, but she’s smart and resourceful, as well as talented, and soon begins to make headway. Or to switch the metaphor, she’s an innocent who must become as wise as a serpent. Structurally, this is the basic comic plot in which a protagonist starts out in a “mad” world dominated by an oppressive, life-denying blocking figure only to escape to a “green” world of a more fulfilling life. Generically, it belongs to the working girl category and to those films featuring fashion shows such as Roberta (1935) and Vogues of 1938 (1937).

The serpent or “devil” in this case is Meryl Streep, the dominatrix who rules Runway, the preeminent fashion magazine and through it the world of fashion. Her performance alone justifies the film, and she will certainly win another Oscar nomination for it. Though the portrayal borders on caricature, Streep, and a good script, give this monster a very human dimension. And just as we come to sympathise with Streep, so we come to accept the Vanity Fair of haute couture.

In this regard the film resembles the comedies of the 30s. In them, much to the horror of the radicals of the time, the films play a double game. They of course favour the lower class characters struggling to make ends meet during the Depression, and to a certain extent they satirise or condescend to the upper classes who would seem to oppress them. But in the end, the privileged turn out to be OK too. If they are not laughed away as “screwballs,” they undergo a change of heart, reveal their own working class origins, and more often than not contribute to the triumph of youth and the working classes. Thus the films ameliorate class conflict, the central concern of the decade.

Hollywood films have long since abandoned the class struggle — that happened with film noir in the 40s, when Freud replaced Marx as the guru of the era. Now the issue is power. Hathaway already has a college degree, as well as a prosperous father. The question becomes does she have the moxie or chutzpah to get ahead in this vicious, egomaniacal world. Of course she does, but in the process the audience is taught that the way of this world may serve some important end and that some decent hearts beat beneath the vain and proud facades. To emphasise this point, the film provides two supporting actors, Stanley Tucci as the prissy designer, and Emily Blunt as Hathaway’s immediate superior and competitor. To my mind, two more Oscar nominees.

But my reservations about the film arise not from its approving satire of the “world,” an accepting mockery whose lineage goes back to the Roman poet Horace, as opposed to the savage indignation of a Juvenal or a Swift. It results from the film’s sexual morality. Hathaway has a boyfriend. Though he appears to be more authentic, that is, more run down and beat looking than she, and less corrupted by the world, he too wants to advance his career as a chef. The trouble is that they live together. If the film depicted them as having a chaste courtship, it would appear unreal to the majority of audiences. Such is the nature of romantic love according to the conventions of our time. A 20s-something virginal woman, as in one of the Seinfeld episodes, can only elicit curiosity and ridicule.

A tough boss to pleaseThen to add another note of “reality”, she proves unfaithful to this relationship — to the shock of one of her friends — and has an affair with a glamorous, successful author who has helped her advance. Again, the film treats the affair with considerable ambivalence. On the one hand, it seems a no-fault romantic brief encounter, but on the other, the realisation that her new lover is not Mr Nice Guy serves as a catalyst that causes her to see that she is becoming a younger Meryl Streep. As a result, she rejects the mad world, tossing the cell phone that binds her to Streep into a fountain, and sets out in the direction of the “green” and better, world of her old boyfriend and a more edifying but less glamorous job as an investigative, socially conscious journalist. Her experience leads her back to innocence.

To the film’s credit, it relates the subordinate romantic plot to its main concern with the world of Prada. Yet, consistent with the double game it plays throughout, even the upbeat ending conveys some ambivalence. Yes, she reconciles with the old lover, thus endorsing, if not marriage, “a committed (in the jargon of the day) monogamous relationship”. But the lover is moving to Boston for his new and better job. She remains in New York, implying, perhaps, the possibility of other relationships. Thus, while remaining true to the structure of comedy, the film makers invest the structure with contemporary mores, on the one hand accepting the status quo of both “making it” and the sexual revolution while on the other hand nodding in the direction of traditional morality.

Dr. Johnson criticised the novel Tom Jones because its hero, before he reformed, engaged in illicit amours. But such sin followed by repentance was the time-honoured way of showing the world “as it is” and the world “as it ought to be.” The Devil Wears Prada makes no such distinction. Its ambivalence about the way of the world leaves me with a mixed response. Much of what I saw I liked, but in the end I wanted to see art wed to morality, not just engaged in a flirtation.

William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of “Hollywood: An Epic Production”, a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.