Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Only Deign To Work
Memory. Usually I’d rather just forget everything. I don’t want to think about it, I don’t even want to write about it. Even when it comes to good memories if enough time goes by and certain people you once knew recede further into the past, there can still be the tinge of regret and of the road not taken. Autumn comes and no matter what else is going on I’ll think of New York, not because of Frank Sinatra but because of the excitement I felt back in those days working at a daily entertainment news show for a certain news network. I started that job in a September long ago and to this day during those months I remember the feel of autumn in the air combined with the excitement I felt. I was young, I was hopeful, I was stupid, I would leave the office every night and the entire city was out there, every single possibility was out there. On the same floor where I worked was the long running “Style with Elsa Klensch” and I never paid much attention to it or to her or any of that stuff but it was there with those monitors always displaying what seemed like endless b-roll of fashion shows. How much of this stuff went on day after day? I never found out and I still don’t know. Looking it up tells me that show ran all the way until February 2001 and an article in the New York Observer at the time references how the network “has drastically reduced its fashion-news coverage” which now sounds like a sentence from another dimension. According to Wikipedia the show I worked at in the early 90s (“Showbiz Today” for anyone who remembers that one) had its final airing on, um, September 10, 2001. We know what changed after that but it was already long in the rearview mirror for me by then.
Anyway, that’s the past and no point in dwelling there. The world moves on, after all. But I still get that rush from certain films set in New York that remind me of the hugely tangible feeling of being on those streets when you’re young enough to know you want to reach for something but maybe too stupid to know what the right choices are. Released during the summer of ’06, the film version of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is ten years old now and I’m guessing even the world of fashion magazines isn’t the same as it was then--Googling around I spotted a headline which read “How ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ Would Be Different in 2016” and I didn’t click on it since I’ve got other things to do. Putting all that aside, even without all the up to date gadgets that would be used by the characters, revisiting the film now it still feels current as if it’s very much part of this increasingly media intense environment. Not to mention that it barely feels like I’m revisiting this film at all since it’s never really gone away due to constant cable airings and how much it’s generally remembered. As a contrast, the DVD features a few trailers of other Twentieth-Century Fox comedies released the very same summer which serves as proof of how fast these things are usually forgotten. Plus the other film that opened the very same week was SUPERMAN RETURNS which also hasn’t exactly stuck around (that one’s a conversation for another time) and I saw it opening night at the Chinese with one of the most excited audiences imaginable but even then it was clear which film was more satisfying, which one hit the target. THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA isn’t perfect and it’s so slick that maybe there isn’t much to discuss in detail but it gets much of the overall approach just right and it’s just a damn good movie. Maybe not a great one but on a pop level of what a film like this is supposed to be in the best of all worlds it feels almost, pretty much, just right.
Recently arrived in New York and looking to work in journalism, Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) takes a job as second assistant to the all-powerful Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), editor-in-chief of Runway Magazine. Nothing about Andrea fits in at Runway, as she deals with the daily humiliation put forth by Miranda as well as first assistant Emily Charlton (Emily Blunt) who worships everything the magazine represents and dreams of nothing more than the upcoming Paris trip during Fashion Week. But once Andrea begins to find her way at the magazine with the help of art director Nigel (Stanley Tucci) her relationship with boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) begins to suffer and her ability to do the job surpassing even what she thought was possible she finds herself getting sucked into Miranda’s world at the expense of everyone else around her.
But you know this already. Everyone’s seen this film by now, my 12 year-old niece has seen it. It’s one of those perfect lazy Sunday afternoon movies to find on cable just like 2015’s THE INTERN which also starred Anne Hathaway and on a recent Sunday I had absolutely zero problem with finding that one on again. In comparison, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger) is equally pleasant but it’s also meant to be sharper, darker even if it never goes too far in the direction of unpleasantness. Whatever the novel was, and I haven’t read it, the goal of the film is clearly not to blow the roof off of the treatment of assistants in the fashion industry and as dark comedies go it doesn’t go all that far, as if the most hostile physical action in the movie is the way Streep’s Miranda Priestly slams her coats down on the desk in that rapid-fire montage. The punches are even pulled a little when it comes to the worst thing Andy is asked to do she’s asked to do as if to make it not quite so terrible, as if there were a number of script discussions about this plot point but by this point so much of the film is clicking in the right way that it really doesn’t matter. The cutting dialogue keeps things moving through each of Miranda’s fucked up mind games and it feels continually grounded during each of the ridiculous tasks partly because it’s so easy to identify with Hathaway and her own goals.
And tone can be a tough nut to crack. Sure, just because the movie wants to be slick and commercial doesn’t mean it’s easy to pull that off. A little too much one way the whole thing is just too silly, like a bad ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS knockoff. Too much the other way and the dark humor would just become too sour. The Harrison Ford-Rachel McAdams comedy MORNING GLORY which came a few years later is clearly trying to do a similar thing (the two films even share the same screenwriter) and it’s not an unpleasant film in the least but is maybe a little too broad and ultimately insubstantial that there’s a ‘so what?’ feel to the conflict. Even comfort food has to have standards, after all. Whatever the book was, it feels like the goal of adapting THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA was to make it not a revenge piece (bringing to mind how Nigel mocks Andrea’s whining with a ‘poor you’) but to find a way to show how making this hellish job matter, to realize that you’re not forced to live in this world but if you’re going to be there you should at least try to live up to its standards since even fluff can mean something. It’s not about making Miranda Priestly a bitch to be put in her place but to live up to this challenge you’ve created for yourself and keep what you were meant to be in the process. Not easy, but no one said it was going to be.
Directed by David Frankel whose work before this film included the ENTOURAGE pilot, some SEX AND THE CITY episodes and the 1995 Woody Allen-ish romantic comedy MIAMI RHAPSODY, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is fast paced to the point that the speed almost becomes the very tone of the film using the breakneck approach established on ENTOURAGE and modifying it here to accentuate the stylishness of this world as opposed to the frenetic handheld feel of that show. The main exception is maybe during the famous scene where Miranda Priestly explains to Andrea with dripping contempt what it is they really do with the word ‘cerulean’ serving as a key part of that explanation and it’s one of the best in the film both in how it’s written and played by Streep with those words slithering out from the contempt she clearly feels for who she’s explaining this to while expertly doing her job at the very same time. The camerawork here goes handheld not in a manic way but just enough to add to the immediate unease that Andy suddenly feels (another headline I spotted was “What That Famous ‘Devil Wears Prada’ Scene Actually Gets Wrong” and I didn’t care enough to click on that either) and even in this scene the film doesn’t linger, moving forward immediately instead of on an expected reaction shot of the person who’s been momentarily rendered irrelevant. The deleted scenes on the DVD include a bit where Stanley Tucci’s Nigel introduces himself to Andrea; nothing wrong with the moment but in the film’s eyes it’s not necessary, pleasantries aren’t required here and you have to run alongside everyone else or you won’t catch up.
Frankel’s direction is continually assured in how to keep moving, like in the extended shot where Simon Baker’s slick columnist makes the move on Andrea as she gets lost in the drunken feel of this power just as he later tells her how sexy it is that she’s becoming part of that world so for those few seconds she sees the appeal in that. In each beat like that the film knows how to keep moving, it continually gets to the point of each scene and the dialogue gets it to the right point. And almost in a musical way it knows when to calm down, to allow for the quietness of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly to cut through everyone else who knows they don’t have anywhere near the power she does. Streep’s the one who gets the speeches, cerulean-related and otherwise, whether designed to humanize her or add to the inevitable cruelty—Hathaway doesn’t get to say as much, there to merely listen since her place in the world is still being formed with a flashback to the beginning at one point just a few mere seconds as if that memory of what she was is already fading away. Even with the broader moments and the craziness of some of the fashions and yet it still is about the character more than strictly comedy, the world has its own internal logic. You’re either part of it or you’re not. And if you’re not, that’s all. Show yourself out.
Even when dealing with the absurdity of the then-unreleased Harry Potter book Andrea’s victories are small, relatable and for the purposes of the plot, significant. The film doesn’t have a deep or heavy message but it still knows to show how important this is in the way when you’re that young and everything seems so big and possible. All you want to do is not fuck up and you don’t know yet that you will. The feel is underlined by Theodore Shapiro’s score (who also did the score for, whaddyaknow, THE INTERN) which works for a comedy but also as Andy’s own personal soundtrack, as she stares up at the buildings all of this matters. For us, it’s Hollywood fluff. But it’s her story so it means something, as heightened as it is, as much as though we hear about the hours and the stress the glamour of working that job is still what comes across. Maybe it’s more of a coming of age story than satire or even a comedy—maybe it’s just an aspirational thing, since as much as we hear about it things never seem that awful. All we know is that when Andy buckles down and does the work it all looks pretty nice, leading to the Big Question of do you become your job or is your job just what you’re doing while waiting for the next thing. Plus with a few lines it drops in the subtle theme of women in the workplace and it could easily be called more progressive than WORKING GIRL with Sigourney Weaver last seen being told to get her bony ass out of there (and, lest anyone forgets, WORKING GIRL is a favorite of mine). It’s not too hard to imagine that version of this material being made by lesser hands, one that would make Miranda Priestly (or Emily) a one-dimensional bitch to be humiliated and even when Andrea makes her choice she’s not taking back any defense she’s made of her. It’s just not who she is. This all manages to bring a sliver of depth to this lightweight material, knowing that no more than a sliver is needed, dropped in to lines like Nigel’s dream of coming to Paris and actually getting to see Paris—the glamour of such a job letting you travel all over the world but still not entirely part of the world. Without that sliver the movie wouldn’t have turned into the perennial I guess it already is. I’m no expert on what my 12 year old niece should be watching but this seems like a pretty good one.
This film also seemed to mark the beginning of the Meryl Streep renaissance of the past decade or so and as big as this role seems in the surface the quietness she brings to her intensity, even on those rare occurrences where she shows what's underneath, is palpable. Whatever she’s doing, even if it’s just holding out her hand for what she expects to be placed there immediately, all those touches make it the perfect combination of star and larger than life character. Rachel McAdams reportedly turned down the role of Andrea and we’ll never know how that would have been (she wound up doing MORNING GLORY in 2010; let’s just say that film’s biggest issues aren’t her fault) but Anne Hathaway is an ideal audience surrogate, grounding the film with her insecurities in how she’s clearly trying to be better as the film goes on. Her steadiness makes it believable how much she ultimately fits into the world even if she can’t help herself. There are some scenes where Hathaway barely says anything at all, merely listening, and the way she listens helps to keeps the film about her during these moments. The supporting cast hits all the right marks as well—Stanley Tucci is awesome and totally laser focused with his timing with every line he has while the fantastic Emily Blunt brings nuance and believable panic to her innate over-the-topness with such sharpness that it’s still my favorite performance in this film. Simon Baker oozes the smarm of someone who knows exactly how to play this game while even the bit players pop--a few small roles almost feel like they were designed to possibly be played by big names in cameos but so what (a few real life notables do appear in cameos) and of course there’s along with Adrian Grenier of ENTOURAGE as the patient boyfriend pushed to his limits, Tracie Thoms of DEATH PROOF, Rich Sommer of MAD MEN and Rebecca Mader, now on ONCE UPON A TIME.
I’ve said very little about all the fashion, but I’m sure there’s someone else out there who can focus on all that from what I can tell, what Emily Blunt wears does the best job at getting across the exaggeration. And it’s hard not to notice those reminders of how the world really has changed—disparaging references to people forced to work at Auto Universe and TV Guide now sound like people they’re probably lucky to have any magazine job at all. But the world of the film is not so much the glossy New York I remember as it is a New York that I wish I remembered even if it is many years since I’ve been there now and, besides, that was so long ago that I’m not even sure if there’s any point in remembering it all. I’m perfectly ok with remembering a movie like this instead, since it’s a reminder that there aren’t enough like it these days (one I haven’t seen is David Frankel’s later HOPE SPRINGS which reunited him with Street). It goes down so easily that it doesn’t bother me that it never gets too believably dark Yes, there could have been a scene where Andy gets believably screamed at. I’m sure it’s happened in those offices before and it happened to me once at another entertainment news show I once worked at. I got over it. You shake these things off. You have to, while you wonder once again if you’ve become your job or if your job is just what you’re waiting for until the next thing. And while you try to figure that you walk off into the distance to go home at night, looking for a new day. Anyway, to steal a toast from the film, to jobs that pay the rent. That’s all.