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Winning Streep

It’s been done. A movie has at last been made that is better than the book on which it is based.

What movie? The Devil Wears Prada. Granted, the novel wasn’t as difficult to surpass as, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, but the original roman a clef was an entertaining read.

But whereas the novel was merely funny, the movie is witty. And it fleshes out the novel’s one-dimensional title character so well that it makes the book seem like a victim of some twist on dramatic irony where even the writer doesn’t know what’s really going on.

The basic plot is the same. Recent grad Andy Sachs wants to write for the New Yorker, but the only job she can get is as second assistant to Miranda Priestly, the martinet editor-in-chief of the fictitious fashion magazine Runway. Ms. Priestly is widely thought to be based on Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, whose legendary abusive treatment of her staff has earned her the nickname “Nuclear Wintour” and for whom the novel’s author, Lauren Weisberger, once worked.

The novel’s Miranda Priestly is no more than a boss from Hell; the movie’s, brillantly portrayed by Meryl Streep, is an always demanding, often unreasonable, vulnerable, smart, savvy, substantial, successful fashion editor with an unerring eye. Ms. Streep’s assertion that she based her portrayal of the character on men rings true. I’ve had a lot of obnoxious bosses–male and female–in my own sunlight jobs in Hell, but the one who most closely mirrors Ms. Priestly/Streep’s combination of rude dismissal of requests for clarification (Please bore someone else with your questions.), threats to impede one’s career (If you don’t go, I’ll assume you’re not serious about your future at Runway or any other publication.), and arrogant name mispronunciation (ahn-DRAY-ah) is male.

Miranda Priestly is clearly the book’s antagonist; in the movie, she’s practically the protagonist. Ms. Streep establishes her character’s preeminence early in the movie, with a quasi-soliloquy on a cerulean sweater that reveals Ms. Sachs as an unwitting bottom-feeder not unlike people who claim entitlement to the riches of America while rejecting the ideas that made her a great nation, or those who reject Shakespeare because he used too many cliches.

Ms. Streep is supported by a cast ranging from good to great. Anne Hathaway seems out of her league, but that’s the character she’s playing. Emily Blunt is very good as the stressed-out first assistant; she captures the courtier mentality without becomming a 21st-century Mrs. Danvers. Stanley Tucci is excellent as Andy Sachs’s Virgil.

The screenplay is clever. Its penultimate conflict subtly reminds the audience of well-known facets of Ms. Wintour’s life and career, e.g. her ousting of Grace Mirabella and her role in the modern transfer of social power from the old to the young.

There are flaws–both major and minor. A minor flaw occurs near the opening, when Miranda Priestly’s handbag sports a gaudy Prada logo. Yes, we get it; this is the title devil, wearing–well, carrying–Prada. We could have figured that out by her manner and the rest of her ensemble; it wasn’t exactly pret-a-porter. The logo unnecessarily tells the audience who the character is at the expense of damaging her consistency. Fortunately, Ms. Streep’s stellar performance is more than adequate to overcome the faux pas.

The movie’s major flaw, which Ms. Streep’s performance enhances, is that, by making Miranda Priestly admirable, if not likeable, it obscures the novel’s point: Treating people badly is wrong, even if one is in a high-profile position.

But while obscured, the point is still there, along with its collolary: Treating writers badly is stupid, especially if one is in a high-profile position.

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