Back in late 2009 the English newspaper The Times announced its best 100 films of the decade. In response, Melbourne-based comedian and film buff Tony Martin wrote a column arguing that the list wasn’t a celebration of the strength of modern cinema, but a demonstration of its dismal decline.
The first film he provided as an example was the 2006 film directed by David Frankel ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (coming in at No. 100). As the critical response had generally been very positive on its release and it got plenty of award nominations (mainly for Meryl Streep, including yet another Oscar nomination), when I got around to seeing it recently at the back of my mind I was wondering which perspective was the correct one.
The plot centres around young wannabe journalist Andy (Anne Hathaway). Struggling to find work after having moved to New York, she settles on a job as a personal assistant to the notoriously ruthless editor of fashion magazine ‘Runway’, Miranda Priestly (Streep). Initially Andy is way out of her depth in the fashion culture and is belittled by her boss and colleagues. But she adapts (including changing her own fashion style) and begins to make a success of her career there… but at the expense of her values, friends and relationship with her boyfriend.
While there are some pleasures to be had, overall TDWP is a major letdown; in almost every aspect it’s obvious with no hint of texture of subtlety. If you read the plot outline above and guessed how it would turn out based on the most predictable outcome you would probably be 100% accurate.
But it isn’t so much the predictably of the narrative that kills it, it’s the detail. For example, to demonstrate how much of a fish-out-of-water Andy is in the fashion culture early on we get clunky scenes of people belittling her, with plenty of eye-rolling on display. And to convey how much she’s struggling at the demands of her job, we see drearily lazy montages of her rushing around the city doing Miranda’s errands ranging from the inevitable rushing around with cups of instant coffee (and of course spilling them) to the even more inevitable being dragged aroundand barely able to keep her feet while walking several dogs at once.
It’s a similarly cliché-filled zone for Andy’s personal life. We get the stock scene at the beginning (before she’s employed by ‘Runway’) where she’s out to dinner with her best friends and boyfriend to illustrate how well her personal life is going, culminating in them clinking their champagne glasses together (the sort of thing you often see in trailers). And then when her professional life begins to take precedence over her personal one, we get telegraphed scenes like where a friend has a confrontation with her at a public event about how she’s changed. And of course, it culminates in a work event taking precedence over an important personal event (missing her boyfriend’s birthday celebration), which is tediously conventional, right down to Andy bringing home a tokenistic birthday cupcake.
As well, the comments the film wants to make on the fashion industry are so obvious they venture into the banal territory. According to the filmmakers, the industry is full of backstabbing and bitchiness and people with self-absorbed, superficial attitudes. What a shock!
Only one scene – where Miranda points out to Andy that there is a genuine connection between the top-level fashion she deals with and the cheap clothes Andy’s wearing had something beyond the stereotypes and conventions to say about the fashion industry.
As has been so often the case during her career, Streep’s performance is a highlight of the film. As critics noted at the time, she doesn’t resort to conventional anger and shouting to convey the influence her character has; indeed, she never raises her voice at all during the movie. It’s the fact that she doesn’t have to show visible anger that demonstrates her self-assuredness and power. The obvious thought put into her performance stands out like a sore thumb compared with the rest of the film.
In contrast, Anne Hathaway gives a disappointing performance, especially in the context of her generally impressive career to date. Whereas Streep rises above the mediocrity of the material, Hathaway sinks down to its level. Her performance is a superficial one as despite the major changes that occur to her character personally and professionally during the film, we get no sense of change or transition. Indeed, the lack of change that occurs to Andy when she ‘loses her way’ makes her more sympathetic than the film intends. In her jittery, bumbling but well-meaning performance she almost seems to be channelling her character from ‘The Princess Diaries’, which worked well there but is ill-suited here.
There are minor compensations in that the film remains watchable and is slickly made and pleasing to look at (as one would expect considering the subject matter) but that counts for little with such a dull script (which got a BAFTA nomination!) and a dramatically limited film.
As it turns out Tony Martin was on the right track. If TDWP is one of the top 100 films made in the 2000s, the film industry is in serious trouble.
*A 2009 post discussing The Times best 100 films of the decade on this blog can be accessed here