I don't know a Dolce from a Gabbana, but my first job as a film critic lo these many years was for Mademoiselle, so I know a bit about the inner sanctums of the fashion magazine biz.
This knowledge came in handy while I was watching "The Devil Wears Prada," adapted from the bestseller by Lauren Weisberger (who had been an assistant to Vogue's Anna Wintour). What might seem to some like exaggeration – the stylishly thin lookalike assistants clacking their stilettos in the hallways, the silky imperiousness of the diva editors – is the way things are.
But realism only goes so far. The film, directed by David Frankel ("Sex and the City," "Entourage"), may be accurate around the edges, but at its heart it's a fairy tale. The engagingly frumpy Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is a recent Northwestern graduate who wants to be a serious journalist but ends up improbably landing the job of assistant to (fictitious) Runway magazine's ice-queen editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). It is not long before Andy – who Miranda condescendingly refers to as the "smart, fat girl" – undergoes the obligatory fashion makeover and becomes so immersed in her job that the rest of her life goes blooey.
She neglects her nice-guy, live-in boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) and wrangles with Amanda's chief assistant (Emily Blunt); she dances around a dalliance with a well-connected magazine writer (Simon Baker) and endures the withering stares of Miranda's right-hand man (Stanley Tucci, in a well-turned performance). She is handed impossible assignments, like Miranda's "request" for the top-secret galleys of the new Harry Potter book for her twin girls, and delivers. She makes it to Paris for the annual designer bash.
Throughout it all we are supposed to see Andy as a sweet, humble girl whose head has been turned by all the hoopla. But, lovely as she is, Hathaway doesn't do much to convey Andy's inner struggles with temptation. There is no glint of cutthroat ambition in her, no inner diva, and so she's a bit wan – a good girl in a bad world.
What makes the film more than fairly good fluff is Streep's performance. It would have been easy for her to portray Miranda as a raging caricature, but instead she plays it for truth. The cadenced purr of her voice has steel in it – she's a lot scarier than a shouter would be. The manicured and Manolo'd Miranda with her rock-solid coif is a woman who values control above all things. When she lets her guard down near the end and talks to Andy about the breakup of her own marriage, the fissures in her armor show and for a moment she becomes bracingly human. Is there anything this actress cannot do? Grade: B–
• Rated PG-13 for some sensuality.