While men in capes have been wrestling for audience attention, Meryl Streep has quietly established herself as queen of the summer, first with her delectable turn in “A Prairie Home Companion” and now with her breathtakingly underplayed performance in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Streep single-handedly elevates this sitcomy but tolerably entertaining adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s bestselling 2003 roman a clef about a personal assistant’s year of chic hell under the thumb of the dragon lady of the fashion world. Gutsily being opened as counterprogramming to “Superman Returns,” Fox release will play very well to women of all ages and should show off nice B.O. legs throughout the summer.
Weisberger’s popular tome offered parsimonious bites of drama along with an array of tiresomely cliched supporting characters, but got by as a compendium of jaw-dropping workplace outrages perpetrated by an inhumanly monstrous boss; it didn’t hurt that the author had worked for the famous and infamous editor of the world’s best known fashion magazine.
To give the material more narrative shape, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (“Laws of Attraction”) has minimized useless characters, expanded the boss’s role to provide a speck of humanity and upped the dramatic ante with a couple of twists that render the tale less flat. Filmmakers have also toned down the editor’s most extremely sadistic behavior and removed the explicitly Jewish identities of the two leads.
Providing an easy point of identification is Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), a recent Northwestern grad whose good looks are readily apparent to scruffily sweet-faced b.f. Nate (Adrian Grenier), but whose dorky bookworm wardrobe provokes guffaws when she arrives at Runway magazine for a job interview to become assistant to style doyenne Miranda Priestly (Streep).
Perhaps because she couldn’t care less about fashion and has never heard of Miranda, Andy unexpectedly gets “the job a million girls would die for.” She shares an outer office with brittle Brit Emily (Emily Blunt), who provides the newcomer with a few clues about what’s required and how not to get fired.
As with the book, a good part of the film is devoted to detailing Miranda’s reign of terror and the often unconscionable humiliations she visits upon her staff. This material, after all, reps the meat of the story, the inside stuff that feels like secrets revealed by someone with first-hand experience. Viewers are readily turned into wide-eyed voyeurs at the scene of daily worker panic and agony, as Miranda, as tough as any boot camp sergeant, calls size-six Andy fat, insists her coffees and lunches be delivered five minutes ago, demands a manuscript of the new Harry Potter book for her twin daughters even though it hasn’t been published yet and concludes every encounter with a cutting “That’s all.”
As harsh as Miranda is in the film, her meanness has been scaled back from the off-the-charts levels of the book; Weisberger, viewing her with the one-dimensional horror of a terrified employee, portrayed her boss as a monster unleavened by any quality other than professional effectiveness. The film takes a slightly, but gratifyingly more expansive view of Miranda as a woman who has consciously made enormous sacrifices to get where she is and to maintain her power.
Aiding this effort most of all is Streep. What the book’s Miranda achieves with hysteria and frequent screeching outbursts, the film’s Miranda manages with withering glances and devastatingly dismissive looks that could wilt poison ivy. Streep’s silent reactions are priceless, and when the lady does speak, it is in dulcet tones that demand extra attentiveness but then reward the listener with barbs from hidden needles. Coutured to the nines and a vision in platinum gray, Streep is a wonder.
Otherwise, the film clunks along through this year-in-the-life in fits and starts. It’s amusing to observe Runway’s fashion queen Nigel (Stanley Tucci, very good) setting Andy on a path toward a classy wardrobe, and heartening to watch Andy as she occasionally racks up points by anticipating Miranda’s needs.
On the other hand, director David Frankel, who has trod these neighborhoods before while helming “Sex and the City,” lards the proceedings with far too many klutzy montages papered over by a largely irritating selection of pop tunes. Scenes with Andy’s earnest puppy-dog boyfriend are boringly one-note, meant to illustrate her growing distance from values of the heart, while the character of a predatory new candidate for Andy’s attentions (Simon Baker) has been blanded out by removing his danger quotient.
Hathaway is fine as the smart but green young woman who finally becomes so good at her thankless job that she comes perilously close to going over to the “dark side” repped by Miranda. Also impressing is Blunt (“My Summer of Love”) as Miranda’s more senior assistant, whose emotional, physical and psychic deterioration over the course of the year presents the most vivid manifestation of Miranda’s toxic influence.
More time could have been spent evoking the color and wild characters of the fashion scene, something achieved momentarily when the action moves to Paris in the late going. All the same, individual craft achievements are sharp, notably those by lenser Florian Ballhaus, production designer Jess Gonchor and, perhaps above all, costume designer Patricia Field (“Sex and the City”), who has turned out myriad appropriately stunning outfits for the entire cast.