Sometimes actors get parts so rich that they almost can't help but make meals of them. Playing a frosty, high-powered editor in The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep turns the role into a four-course dinner and shows up with her own dessert. It's an example of perfect casting paying off, with Streep bringing out her underutilized comic chops to play a beyond-demanding boss while keeping her over-the-top behavior tethered to a believable character. It's a diva turn in a diva part. It's tempting to applaud at the end of her scenes.
But it's hard to care about what's going on whenever she's offscreen. The Devil Wears Prada devotes an unfortunate amount of its running time to much less interesting business involving Anne Hathaway as a fresh-out-of-college aspiring journalist who lands an internship at Streep's magazine even though she knows nothing of fashion (or, not-so-coincidentally, Streep's character). Thrown into the deep end, she's appalled at Streep's demands and at the fearful/worshipful underlings that surround her, from Stanley Tucci as a natty aide de camp to My Summer Of Love's Emily Blunt as the recently promoted assistant whose shoes Hathaway must fill. Such is Streep's power: The normal rules of human interaction bend to suit her ego.
But more than Streep's performance makes her scenes come alive. The film is smart about the world she helps create. Rather than dwelling on the fashion world's absurdities à la Prêt À Porter, Prada is serious about the notion of fashion as living art. In one near-brilliant scene, Streep checks off the many twists and turns fashion took to create the blobby cerulean sweater Hathaway is wearing. But the film is still dumb about people. Hathaway learns exactly the lessons any reasonable viewer knows she's going to learn from the outset, but the film throws in a Greek chorus of friends to remind her how much she's changed, and a too-perfect, easily ignored boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) to drive the point home. The supporting characters are as flat as David Frankel's point-and-shoot direction. Prada is based on a novel by Lauren Weisberger, a former assistant for Vogue's Anna Wintour. A smarter movie would have thrown the Weisberger surrogate out and just focused on the grand dame. That film would have been more compelling and maybe even more believable, particularly considering that the second half of The Devil Wears Prada depends on the young journalist rediscovering her lost integrity, the kind of feat not usually accomplished by writing quickie romans à clef.