After several weeks of struggling to fulfill her duties as second assistant to Runaway magazine’s dictatorial editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) tearfully breaks down in front of a co-worker and vents her frustration at being underappreciated. The Northwestern graduate, who once won a college journalism competition for an article about mistreated union workers, does not resent spending her days fetching lattes and confirming appointments. She resents the fact that Miranda never acknowledges her efforts. Her co-worker, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), tells her to stop whining—a million girls would kill for her job—and start trying harder (by which he really means start dressing better). A makeover ensues with Nigel taking the formerly drab Andy and transforming her to look like the models that grace Runway’s pages. From that moment on, Andy excels at her job. The errands she struggled to complete on time no longer pose a challenge; the numerous contacts she failed to remember are now locked in her memory. A chic wardrobe inexplicably gives her abilities she failed to gain during four years at a prestigious university, and looking like a material girl enables her to become the world’s most competent assistant. Perhaps clothes do make the man or in this case, the woman.
While this transformation (which occurs one third of the way through The Devil Wears Prada) makes no narrative sense whatsoever, it works nicely as an allegory for Andy’s character arc. After moving to New York, she and three of her closest friends quickly learn that their college credentials mean little in the real world and that they must pay their dues at menial jobs before pursuing to their dream careers. For Andy that career is journalism, so she enslaves herself to Miranda (a character supposedly based on notorious Vogue editor Anna Wintour) hoping that one year of servitude will open the necessary doors. She approaches the job without any emotion, pledging not to let Miranda’s demands bother her. However once Andy drinks the fashion industry’s Kool-Aid – courtesy of the aforementioned makeover – she fully assimilates into the world Miranda presides over. The once idealistic college journalist begins to mirror her boss’ ruthless and shallow ways. This impresses Miranda, who promotes Andy to the position of first assistant, but Andy’s friends wonder what happened to the wide-eyed girl who used to dress in plaid skirts and cumbersome sweaters.
The basic story – young professional sacrifices integrity to get ahead – is not novel but looking at it from a female’s perspective felt fresh in 2006. Double standards exist in the professional world and, as Andy points out, if Miranda was a man people would only know that she was good at her job—her cold-hearted behavior would go unnoticed. Consider how our culture regards Donald Trump as a player and Martha Stewart as a shrew.
Such insights into the professional world are few and far between, but The Devil Wears Prada provides an entertaining peek into the cutthroat world of top tier fashion. Meryl Streep’s scene stealing performance as Miranda keeps every moment interesting; she emanates cold vanity while still bringing the slightest bit of humanity to a character most actresses would play as a bad stereotype. Tucci is no less brilliant as Nigel, a man who recognizes the absurdity of the world he inhabits but never questions his part in it, because at this point in his career he has no other options. It’s a grand piece of escapist entertainment that has a heart under its beautiful surface.