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Friday, Nov. 17, 2006

Fun and games in fashion hell

They say the devil has all the best songs, but judging from a movie opening this weekend, he has all the best clothes too. Or maybe I should say "she," since "The Devil Wears Prada" positions Meryl Streep as a NYC high-fashion magazine editor who is The Boss From Hell.

The Devil Wears Prada Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Director: David Frankel
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: English
Opens Nov. 18, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The film is based on the debut novel by Lauren Weisberger, who worked at Vogue in the 1990s, where her boss was notorious dragon-lady Anna Wintour. Though all parties involved in the film are quick to deny this -- perhaps due to the scent of lawsuits -- Wintour obviously provided, um, inspiration for the film's imperious domineditrix, Miranda Priestly, played with evil glee by Streep.

"The Devil Wears Prada" is directed by David Frankel, who previously worked on "Sex and the City," and the influence of that series shows in this film's celebration of Manhattan girl-glamour (although the only orgasms on offer here are when someone slips into some free Jimmy Choo heels). The film uses the tried and tested device of taking the viewer into an arcane and hermetic society through the eyes of a fresh-faced newcomer, in this case actress Anne Hathaway, playing Miranda's much put-upon assistant, Andrea Sachs.

Most of the laughs here are drawn from contrasting Andrea's good-natured, down-to-earth frumpiness and Miranda's bitchy, fashion-uber-alles attitude. When we first meet Andrea, she's wandering into the offices of Runway, the fashionista bible run by Miranda, for a job interview. When word arrives that Miranda's on her way, the staff panic as if the FBI had just called to say there was a bomb in the building.

Streep makes the most of her entrance as Miranda. The first glimpse we get of her is one high-heeled leg stepping out of a cab with a certain laser-guided precision that says it all. She explodes into her office with a flurry of orders and complaints, before her withering, castrating gaze settles on Andrea, who's grinning bemusedly and -- oh-my-god -- wearing a "practical," Gap-ish outfit. "Who is that sad person," Miranda asks, to no one in particular. "Are we doing a before and after shoot I don't know about?" Ouch!

Miranda decides on a whim to hire Andrea to be her new personal assistant, or "Emily" as she calls them, because the turnover is too frequent for her to be bothered to remember their real names. Andrea sees it as good experience, but wonders if she can really handle a boss who'll phone her at all hours, calls her "fat" (she's a size 6), and asks her maddening questions like "Where's that piece of paper I had in my hands yesterday morning?" Andrea learns the hard way how, as another Emily puts it, "Miranda's opinion is the only one that matters."

Andrea's boyfriend, Nate (Adrian Grenier), a restaurant chef, and all her college friends can't believe how much she allows Miranda to dominate her life, but it becomes a point of pride for Andrea, and she refuses to give Miranda a reason to fire her. So when Miranda asks for, say, the next Harry Potter manuscript -- the unpublished one -- for her kids, Andrea has to figure out how to come through.

Of course, this being a fantasy fulfillment chick-flick, the same way superhero flicks are for guys, there has to come the big makeover moment. Just as dorky Peter Parker becomes "The Amazing Spiderman," plain, practical Andrea becomes Cover Girl, clad in a protective armor of Chanel and Calvin Klein, thanks to the magazine's fashion director Nigel (Stanley Tucci), a kvetsching queen who nevertheless takes pity on her and allows her to loot Runway's sample stock. And just as Spiderman gets to beat the living crap out of his foes, Cover Girl gets to watch the jaws of her bitchy coworkers drop as she sashays in looking like she walked out of an Armani ad. She also gets a token hunk (Simon Baker, the poor man's Heath Ledger) hitting on her, thus fulfilling the chick-flick requirement of more than one guy desiring the heroine.

If you think this is going to hit the G-spot of Tokyo's cerebu-obsessed OLs and gyaru, well, you'd be right. The casting was also brilliant in this regard, using Julia-Roberts lookalike Hathaway, who has already played out one popular Cinderella-fantasy in "The Princess Diaries." (And that film was called "Pretty Princess" in Japan, and bore an ad campaign that looked suspiciously like that of "Pretty Woman," which was The Mother Of All Prince Charming Fantasies, "Pygmalion" for a sexually aware generation.)

"The Devil Wears Prada" is one of those clever, faux-moralizing films, though, that manages to have its Galliano and eat it too. Sure, Ginza girls will go crazy over the costumes by Patricia Field (the designer on "Sex and the City"), and the dream of having all the brandwear you want for free. The film has an ironic edge, though, ensuring that anyone who loathes the superficiality and inflated sense of self-importance that marks the fashion world will also love this film. The film puts in some sharp, laugh-producing lines, like when Nate asks Andrea,"Why do women need so many bags?" One suspects, though, that the film's real, heart-of-hearts answer is "A woman needs as many as she wants, you little cretin."

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