Friday, July 14, 2006

Speak of THE DEVIL

In a recent topic discussion, the usually civilized Mobius Home Video Forum got hot and bothered over HBO's Sex and the City, which departed pay cable two years ago but now reaches a wider audience via edited versions broadcast on TBS. As someone who absolutely hates formulaic cop, doctor, and lawyer shows (on principle, I've never seen a complete episode of any of the Law & Order franchise members), I found Sex a pleasant break from the programming paradigm, and without its success HBO might never have pursued other breakthroughs, like The Sopranos and the very best show on TV, Deadwood, the weekly equivalent of great literature in broadcast form. Given that Mobius has few female members (or, maybe, few female members with an interest in the subject at hand), I can't say the conversation broke down along gender lines, but it certainly broke apart, and I found myself the last man standing defending the show against charges of tastelessness, inaccuracy, and the perceived unattractiveness of its castmembers (a low blow, that one).

I see Sex and the City, and now The Devil Wears Prada (which share a director, David Frankel, and the sublime costume designer, Patricia Field) as the natural extensions of traditional "women's pictures," a genre that has much to offer straight men (gay men so get them), if only they'd look beyond, I don't know, ESPN or The Speed Channel (OK, I'm stereotyping). I got into them, naturally, from horror movies, specifically those battleaxe titles from the Sixties, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1964), featuring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in their last, campy hurrahs as screen stars. In turn, I sought out their cornerstone titles, and became an unabashed fan. The direction and screenwriting may have been the work of men, but the emotions and temperament were exquisitely, savagely, funnily female. They helped open my eyes to the mysteries of the opposite sex, much as key films like Kramer vs. Kramer and Raging Bull, for example, offered insight into the world of adults, so near and yet so far away from my teenage consciousness.

Sex and The Devil (there's a movie title for you) update The Best of Everything (1959), a Crawford co-starrer based on Rona Jaffe's highly influential novel, with a scoop of Doris Day's hugely popular comedies from the same era added on top. (The Day comedies are weirdly unfunny today--the humor in 2003's warmly parodic Down With Love is much more au courant--but the social gleanings are as fascinating as examining the rings of an ancient redwood tree). All are set in "glamorous" New York City working worlds. For all their seductiveness, these are unmasked as quietly seething snakepits of clashing egos and petty misbehavior, where the rise to the top is accompanied by a corresponding solitude and loneliness, the high price to be paid for mastery of the universe. In the older models, the nice girl, pushed too far by a tyrannical boss, either walks away, for the security of family life, or grimly accepts what will be her lot in life by climbing the treacherous rungs of the career ladder. The newer films and TV shows, which give women freer rein over their personal and professional lives (which undoubtedly bugs more conservative male and female viewers) aren't so cut-and-dried in their choices.

The pre-9/11 episodes of Sex very accurately reflect the sense of New York City as party central in the mid- to late Nineties, days of wine and roses when new possibilities seemed to be falling from the skyscrapers. The show changed smartly with the times, and the current hangover is reflected in The Devil Wears Prada, based on Lauren Weisberger's bestseller, a book that helped define "chick-lit." I haven't read it (there are limits to my interest in the world of women), but by all accounts the screenplay, by Aline Brosh McKenna, adjusts the hemline of the novel, which was an assistant's screed against her nasty, flagrantly self-serving employer, who among other slights and eccentricities never bothered to say "please" and "thank you" when she flung her expensive coats on said assistant's desk in the morning. That's all in the movie, encapsulated in an amusing montage of couture in motion (pictured). And I assume the weak, perfunctory sequences of the assistant's social life and boyfriend problems (the guys are played by Adrian Grenier, star of HBO's Entourage, a male response to Sex and the City, and Simon Baker, with eyebrows and facial hair that suggest a passing-for-chic blond werewolf), come from the book, too. Like its predecessors, it's not a deep probe into the politics of the workplace, but like good pop culture it has at least one ear to the ground regarding its subject.

But the master-and-servant games are exceedingly well-played, by Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt on the one side of the fence, and a wicked Meryl Streep on the other. The template requires that the identification figure, Hathaway's Andy, be naive, but maybe not so much as here; while I appreciated the switch in Andy's alma mater from the book's Brown to Northwestern's J-school (my own; did they pay someone for the actress to wear one of the signature purple-and-white sweatshirts?), she's a little dense on basic j-job interview prep--no self-respecting NU grad would not know that Runway is the leading fashion magazine, and that its editor-in-chief, the imperious Miranda Priestly, is, as her name implies, the high priestess of that domain. I was a little insulted, but it's a 109-minute movie and the exposition has to be gotten through on the run, delivered by Miranda's first assistant, Emily (Blunt), who is incredulous at how much of a bumpkin, in attitude and attire, Andy is. But, as impressed as someone of her status can be by an underling with Andy's promises of a solid work ethic, Miranda hires her anyway to be her second assistant.

The movie is very shrewd in its portrayal of Miranda. We come to see that she has an inner life, beneath her frosty surface, and there is a replay of the familiar (but always gripping) scene where she lets her fabulously tended hair and makeup slip in the presence of her new confidante, Andy, who is by this time less recognizable as the naive liberal girl we met in the beginning. But we only see her at a remove, in the context on her employees, who are awed, cowed, and shaped by her. (The movie would be silly if Miranda barnstormed through as its central character. And, in a credible real-life touch, Miranda's unassailable reputation does not make her wholly invincible from the front-office beancounters.) Miranda, who like a practiced Mafia don of yore strikes more terror with a raised eyebrow than a raised voice, is not a stereotypical boss-from-hell--there is a method to her pettiness, which the starstruck (and, ultimately, struck down) Emily never sees. When she comes down hard on a tearful Andy, we see that Miranda is right for doing so; as her sage second-in-command, gay-man-in-waiting, Nigel (Tucci) observes, Andy broke faith, by not living up to her initial promise and condescending to the job at hand. In the real world, Andy would be speed dialing for her unemployment benefits by this time but Nigel, with some reluctance, opens the door for her to Runway's promised land of cast-off clothes, enabling Andy to get a better wardrobe and a better attitude.

From here on in, Miranda, rather than be awed by the new, improved Andy, continually ratchets the stakes, forcing Andy to complete even more impossible tasks and putting her on difficult moral territory regarding Emily, who has fallen behind in the placating sweepstakes. Here is where the old and new-model women's pictures part ways. Yesteryear, Andy would have walked out of the office, as if the experience had never happened, and into the arms of her waiting beau. But here, Andy (who, in another switch from the template, has her cake and eats it too regarding Boyfriend No. 2, Baker's smarmily charming freelancer) actually learns something of value once the gamesplaying reaches a crucial peak--Emily and Nigel, who will have to live in hope longer than anticipated, will have to keep playing. Andy's character is reassembled, toughened up for meaner streets than Carrie and the gang walked on Sex and the City. Miranda's final (and, in the picture, only) enigmatic smile, the one private moment she is allowed, is her savoring that someone (an NU grad!) finally understood the down-and-dirty lessons she was trying to impart. (Or maybe it's an awareness that Andy's next environment is even more ego-driven than the one she exited, in a more dressed-down way. Or maybe she's put one over on Andy; "she's smart, but if only she had thrown her coat on her desk one morning, or put down my dress sense, I would have laughed and my whole house of cards would have finally collapsed." However you read it, it's another comedy triumph for Streep, right up there with Death Becomes Herand Adaptation. She's truly in clover now, and as finely aged as vintage wine, with a Mother Courage due in Central Park that will be something to see.)

Not a great film, The Devil Wears Prada is nevertheless, and obviously, very bloggable, for more besides its shoes and belts. It opens a corner office window on the here-and-now regarding timeless subjects in the movies and in life. And, guys, I gotta tell you--reliable sources say the gift of the year, available now in stores, is among Andy's accessories, and by not seeing The Devil there'll be hell to pay regarding your significant other when you come up empty this Christmas.

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