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The Devil Wears Prada

(2006) *** Pg-13
106 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: David Frankel. Cast: Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Tracie Thoms.

Though the story properly begins with a hiring, The Devil Wears Prada is all about dismissals. Everyone at Runway, New York's top fashion magazine, is snobbily dismissive of new executive assistant Andy Sachs. Andy's clothes—swiftly deemed hideous—come off the racks of bourgeois department stores. Though Runway is all about fashion, Andy's a neophyte who can't tell a Versace from a Gucci, and she sees her job as nothing more important than—if she's lucky—a stepping stone to a proper journalistic position. But as in-house fashion maven Nigel points out, the opinion of editor Miranda Priestly "is the only one that matters."

As "notorious sadist" Miranda, Meryl Streep exudes the kind of imperious authority that strikes fear into her charges. Unpredictably ending conversations with a sing-songy, lightly tossed-off "That's all," Miranda can effortlessly break a spirit. With an apparent utter disdain, she daily plops her coat and bag before Andy (Anne Hathaway) and proceeds to haze her new personal assistant with near-impossible tasks. And yet, as Nigel (Stanley Tucci, rising just above a sitcomedic role) reminds Andy, "A million girls would kill for" a job that's not her (Prada) bag.

Adapted from Lauren Weisberger's bestselling roman à clef of days spent under Vogue editor Anna Wintour, The Devil Wears Prada stays consistently buoyant in the hands of director David Frankel (Miami Rhapsody). If it rarely becomes more than a conventional Hollywood movie with conventional conflicts, at least it remembers to amuse, and has a force of nature in Streep. Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna skillfully renders the scene in which Miranda schools Andy about fashion by explaining that her dreadful cerulean blue sweater wouldn't exist if the fashion industry hadn't decided that cerulean blue was the color du jour.

That revelation may prove the power of the fashion industry to dictate taste, but not the industry's benificence in our lives. The whole enterprise still seems suspiciously pointless in its iron grip, and certainly more harmful than not to self-esteem ("I'm just one stomach flu away from my goal weight," says Miranda's top aide, Emily). Miranda quickly makes apparent to Andy that she's not going to change the job; the job is going to change her.

Emily (played cannily by Emily Blunt) is counting on Miranda's number two failing; in fact, she proves she has Emily's number when she snaps, "You sold your soul the day you put on that first pair of Jimmy Choos." If Andy ever had clear sight of the prize at the end of Miranda's twisted path, she's lost sight of it by the film's climactic scenes. While Streep's diva is power-crazy like a fox, the warmly funny Hathaway comes across as a doe-eyed Julia Roberts, Jr., a screen ready for the respective projections of female and male viewers (recall, however, that Brokeback Mountain displayed other ammo in Hathaway's arsenal).

To the filmmaker's credit, they thwaw their ice queen, giving the devil her due. Streep's wise comic subtlety smoothly shifts gears to drama when we see behind Miranda's clockwork face and discover what's kept her ticking. With her frosty hair collapsed over her makeup-deprived visage, Streep abandons vanity to reveal the character's lonely-at-the-top insecurity, which in turn ups the ante going into the story's final game of high-stakes poker. The Devil Wears Prada proves a gamble worth taking.

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