It is just too bad Meryl Streep is so good at drama and suffering and accents and stuff like that because that means we don’t get enough of a chance to see how brilliantly funny she is. Her under-appreciated work in Death Becomes Her, Defending Your Life, and She-Devil is fearless, ego-less, and apparently effortless, though clearly thought through in the most meticulous detail. In this film, Streep kicks it up a notch playing the title character, the ruthlessly rapacious Miranda Priestly, editor of a Vogue-style fashion magazine called Runway.
It would be easy to portray the boss-from-hell as an over-the-top Cruella DeVil-type, all shrieks and roars and flashing eyes. But Streep gives Miranda a voice that is quiet but steely, so cold it could give you frostbite. She throws down her Birkin bag with the casually triumphant air of a rodeo star who’s just broken the record for roping a calf. She creates panic with gestures measured in millimeters — a lifted eyebrow, a pursed lip, just removing her sunglasses or tilting her head with the white meringue of a hairstyle that wouldn’t dare get mussed. She is terrifying, mesmerizing, hilarious, and — here is the miracle of this perfomance — touching.
Andy (Anne Hathaway) is a recent graduate of Northwestern University‘s prestigious journalism school who apparently missed class the day they explained that you should not go to a job interview without doing your homework. Emily (the wonderfully contemptuous Emily Blunt) has just been promoted from Miranda’s second assistant to her first and is replacing herself. She is about to dismiss Andy, but Miranda intervenes, and soon Andy is hanging up Miranda’s coat and bypassing the laws of physics in getting coffee from Starbucks to the office in an instant (apparently the company cannot afford a coffee maker).
Nigel (Stanley Tucci in a witty and sympathetic performance) takes pity on Andy and tells her that she has to stop acting as though she is slumming. Andy starts to get caught up in the world of fashion and glitter, leaving her friends and her chef boyfriend (Adrien Grenier) disappointed and neglected.
The title makes it clear that this story is about the devil, and remember, the devil is all about temptation. Andy is tempted not just by the chance to earn Miranda’s respect but by a handsome writer (Simon Baker) who may be able to offer her a real journalism job, maybe something more as well.
The work vs. life story is nothing new and Andy is not as sympathetic a character nor the dilemmas she faces as simple as the movie would like us to believe. Andy is portrayed as the classic naif who comes to the big city. But she is careless and and arrogant in her approach to the job. Nigel correctly tells her that she “deigns” to do it. She thinks those around her are superficial snobs, but she is superficial and snobbish in her judgment of them. The movie wants us to believe her worst crimes are her failure to show up at her boyfriend’s birthday party and her edging out a colleague at work for a coveted assignment. But she commits a far greater and more devastating betrayal for which she faces no consequences at all.
Miranda is supposed to be the classic menace, a grotesque witch right out of Hansel and Gretel, inviting Andy into her candy house only to eat her up, or the witch in Rapunzel, keeping her a prisoner in a tower, away from those she loves. But while Miranda is not kind or nurturing, she is smart and tough and the best in the world at what she does. She insists that those around her be as dedicated and ruthlessly imaginative, even as honest within the context of the particular aspirations of her enterprise, as she is. She knows that the moment her publication fails to reflect what is both new and excellent — requiring energetic pursuit of fresh ideas and resolute aesthetic judgment — readers will leave for whoever is doing it better. After all, that’s what fashion means.
So, the movie pulls its punches. It sets itself up as a story with clear good guys and bad guys, but by backing away from a more authentic portrayal of the genuine conflicts we face at work, it feels as smug and superficial as its heroine. Fortunately, Streep is as classic and indispensible as a little black dress by Chanel. The most devlish crime she commits is stealing the movie away from the doe-eyed ingenue.
Parents should know that this movie includes a very poor decision made while tipsy to have sex with someone who turns out to be less than honest. In another era, the heroine would have found this out just before having sex, but here it is afterward, and the movie glosses over any adverse consequences for herself and her relationship with another man. Characters use some strong language and drink (see above). There are some painful confrontations and break-ups. Parents should also know that some behavior they might have concerns about is passed off as clever and resourceful. The points about values and loyalty are resolved well. A strength of the movie is the sympathetic and non-stereotyped portrayal of a gay character.
Families who see this movie should talk about the difference between a job you “deign to do” and one you’d “die to do.” Who is right about the importance of the topics covered in Runway magazine? What are the three most important lessons Andy learns from Miranda? Who in the movie tried to be like Miranda and how successful were they? Why does Nigel say what he does when he gets the bad news? Families may also want to talk about their most tyranical bosses and teachers and about the pressure on girls to be skinny and wear what magazines dictate as the latest fashions. How do we decide what we want to look like?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other fashion-world films like Funny Face and A New Kind of Love with Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Zsa Zsa Gabor(!). My blog has some links to thoughtful commentary on the Streep’s character and the clothes in the movie. They may not be authentic depictions of the way fashion magazine staff dress but they are great to look at and help tell the story and that’s what movie costume design is all about.