July 21, 2006

The Angel Wears Corduroy

“She very soon discovered that there is a charm about fine clothes which attracts a certain class of people and secures their respect.”

Among the many lessons taught in Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” there’s one in which eldest sister Meg, the pretty one, is dolled up for a fancy ball by some richer, more sophisticated acquaintances. She gets a complete makeover—powder, lipstick, jewelry, a new low-cut silk gown with a tight bodice—and is pronounced by her new friends to be a “total hottie.” OK, so Louisa didn’t use exactly those words, but you get the idea. At the big party, she is surrounded by admirers and gets tipsy on champagne, but a couple of family friends who see her declare that all the primping has spoiled her natural beauty. She wakes up the next morning with a wicked headache, feeling ashamed, and she and her sisters learn the lesson that it’s best to be yourself, even if you’re stuck with last year’s frock.

The movie “The Devil Wears Prada” is supposed to be a sort of update of this story—girl is temporarily seduced by the glamour of her fashion magazine surroundings, but learns that it’s better to to wear corduroy and work for a tabloid than to wear Chanel and work for the most powerful woman in the fashion industry. Except that it’s nowhere near as convincing as Miss Alcott’s version, and at the end of the movie, we really wish our heroine would put that fabulous bustier dress back on and comb her hair, for heaven’s sake.

Anne Hathaway plays Andrea “Andy” Sachs, the girl in question, and compared to her Runway magazine coworkers, the stiletto-wearing “clackers,” one of whom is played by supermodel Gisele Bündchen, she’s supposed to look hopelessly frumpy at the beginning, before the obligatory makeover montage. True, her clothes are blah. The problem is that Hathaway has the enormous eyes, pouty berry-stained mouth, and luminous porcelain skin Elite would kill to discover, the kind of beauty that fashion editors love to pose in moss-draped Edwardian tableaux. Next to Anne’s lustrous chocolate mane, Gisele’s stringy dark-blond hair looks positively like day-old oatmeal. (Sidebar: I never thought GB was all that. She is not particularly graceful, and with her sizeable schnozz, I think she’s only an eyleash curler away from plain Jane. You may say, “Quit drinkin’ that haterade,” but it’s my blog, and I’ll dis who I want to.)

Annnnyway, Meryl Streep plays Miranda Priestly, the titular devil boss, as a soignée perfectionist with an endless wardrobe of furs and four-figure handbags to fling contemptuously at her two assistants. She’s a woman who won’t suffer fools gladly, and usually doesn’t have to. She can be mean and unreasonable, but her most outrageous demands, such as, “Find a plane that will take off in a hurricane,” or, “Get my kids the unpublished Harry Potter manuscript” are just plain absurd. When Andy is chided for falling short on the first of these tasks, she is despondent and claims to feel like a failure, but it just doesn’t ring true. I’m really conscientious, but I personally wouldn’t feel bad for not being able to do the impossible. Like, if my boss asked me to get Angelina Jolie to promote our Tomb Raider game at the next trade show, I wouldn’t boo-hoo if she said “Can’t, sorry, I’m off to Antarctica to adopt a penguin.”

Before Andy gets a clue and realizes that even she is not immune to its influence, she acts as if the entire fashion industry is irrelevant and that it’s unreasonable for her to be expected to know who Patrick is, or how to spell “Gabbana.” When she finally realizes that she needs to take her job more seriously and dress for success, she is (improbably) allowed to raid the magazine’s closet, and from then on, looks impossibly polished and elegant, as if she had style all along, but just couldn’t be bothered. Uh-huh.

The makeover section complete, the film moves on to the cautionary tale part of the story. To illustrate Andy’s Manoloed march over to the dark side, she is shown engaging in such morally questionable behaviors as: taking pride in looking nice (that tart!); answering after-hours phone calls from her boss (gasp!); handing out designer swag to her friends (bitch!); working late and missing her boyfriend’s birthday dinner (oh, no she di’n’t!); and worst of all, on instructions from her boss, telling her injured co-assistant that she’ll be taking her place at Fashion Week in Paris (snap!). This is the dark side? Then why are we still wearing sunglasses, people? We want real back-stabbing, hair-pulling, bitch-slapping girlfights! We want brazen scheming and naked (that kind, too) ambition. But no. All we have is a sweet girl just trying to do her job, who apologizes whenever her career inconveniences anyone. Her aspiring-chef boyfriend claims that she’s not herself anymore, but really all that’s changed is her wardrobe and hours of availability. Maybe he’s the one who’s unable to look past the surface. And I’m really suspicious of any line cook that’s home by 10 p.m. Did he run out of amuse bouches to plate at Chèz Barfood?

The most thrilling part of the film is the scene where Andy, now upgraded to “Andrea,” finally makes it to Paris, and sitting in the back of a limousine with Miranda, cruises down the Champs Elysées, twinkly lights reflected in the car windows, and U2’s “City of Blinding Lights” on the soundtrack. Rewind, please! In another back-of-the-limo scene, one that’s unlikely to knock Steiger & Brando off the AFI 100, Miranda praises Andrea for her loyalty and how well she is doing, and then delivers the ultimate (to her) compliment, “You remind me of myself at your age.” This remark is supposed to be proof positive that Andy has sold her soul, and she chucks the electronic leash in a fountain and goes back to New York and her ugly plaid skirt.

You really want to like a movie like this, because it’s bright and shiny, has a couple of standout comic performances, and has some yummy nuggets of entertainment. Ultimately, though, we side with the devil, and that’s no good for a morality tale. As Miranda herself would say, “That’s all.”

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