With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
One of the things you quickly learn when you write an ongoing column about romantic comedies is that it can be kind of hard to decide what constitutes a rom-com. As soon as you move beyond clear-cut picks like When Harry Met Sally, things start to get a bit more complicated. Sleepless In Seattle and My Best Friend’s Wedding are both considered classic rom-coms even though they drastically break the traditional rom-com formula. Bridget Jones’s Diary straddles the line between being a rom-com and a female-led comedy. And then there are true female-led comedies like Miss Congeniality, Legally Blonde, and The Princess Diaries, which are sometimes lumped into the rom-com category, even though romance isn’t really their primary focus. It’s the old “I know it when I see it” adage, and it has to do with the way big studio romantic comedies look and feel. So anything that loosely fits that vibe (and features a female lead) is thrown into the rom-com genre—a genre that, more so than most, is automatically assumed to be of lesser quality and intelligence. That’s why those films, even the well-liked ones, are still often dismissively referred to as “guilty pleasures” or “chick flicks.”
No film better embodies this rom-com conundrum than 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, a nuanced workplace comedy that’s frequently cited as a romantic comedy because it looks and feels like one. The film takes place in a glamorous version of New York City, it has a pop-filled soundtrack and a bright, colorful visual palette, and it features not only a big makeover sequence but also three separate fashion montages. (Costume designer Patricia Field stretched a $100,000 budget into $1 million of designer clothes by calling in every favor she had in the industry, and earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination—a rarity for a contemporary-set film.) Thanks to movies like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days and 13 Going On 30, audiences were used to seeing glossy fashion magazines, scary bosses, and workplace besties as backdrops for movies focused first and foremost on romance. In using those trappings to tell a different kind of story, however, The Devil Wears Prada makes the argument that the aesthetics of the rom-com genre have value as an intentional cinematic style. So while it might not be a romantic comedy, The Devil Wears Prada still winds up serving as a great defense of the genre’s style and tone.
The film uses rom-com storytelling tropes to a slightly more subversive end. Previous attempts to adapt Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 bestseller (inspired by the author’s brief time working as an assistant for Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour) tried to make it more of a heightened Zoolander-esque satire. Director David Frankel and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna pushed the film in a different direction, making it a funny but also emotionally honest portrait of two women in two very different stages of life: Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is just starting her career as an assistant at Runway magazine, while Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is at the peak of hers as its longtime editor-in-chief.
As McKenna told IndieWire, “It’s rare to get the opportunity to write a big Hollywood movie with women protagonists in a professional setting, where the love story is not the thrust of it. ... It was very liberating, after the romance I had been working on. I felt I was allowed to do what the movie wanted to be, a Faust story, a Wall Street for ladies, and not worry about giving her a romantic happy ending.” For Andy’s storyline, McKenna taps into a period of life that’s sometimes underexplored by movies: the transition from college to the workforce. As a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s journalism school, Andy starts the movie with the mindset of a star student. She’s eager to please and be praised, and fairly naïve about the way the business world actually works. The detailed depiction of Andy’s early job struggles (anyone who’s ever worked an office job can relate to the anxiety of answering your first phone call) help ground the film’s more stylized exploration of the fashion industry. And though there are details of Andy’s arc that don’t entirely work, it’s satisfying to watch her grow into a person who’s more confident about what she wants.
Streep played a big role in shaping the tone of the film, too, and getting her attached to the project was a big casting coup, one that only happened after she re-negotiated Fox’s initial low-balled salary offer. (As the actor told Variety, “I was 55, and I had just learned, at a very late date, how to deal on my own behalf.”) In addition to crafting Miranda’s look and voice (she wanted to avoid mimicking Wintour and instead modeled Miranda’s terrifying hushed tone on Clint Eastwood), Streep also pushed for even more emotional realism. She requested a moment in which Miranda appeared “unpeeled,” without the armor of her clothes and makeup, which comes when she briefly opens up to Andy about her impending divorce. She also pushed McKenna to expand a few lines of dialogue into the film’s now iconic “cerulean sweater” speech, which doubles as a meta defense of any pursuit that society dismisses solely because it’s feminine.
In fact, the first half of the film offers such a great defense of the fashion industry that it almost unbalances the whole thing. The Devil Wears Prada is ostensibly about Andy realizing that the toxicity of the fashion world is corrupting her, or at the very least taking her away from her goal of becoming a serious journalist. But the film never quite sells that idea because it has such a clear love for fashion and because Andy seems to remain so principled throughout. That also contributes to the weakest aspect of the movie: Andy’s relationship with her boyfriend, Nate (Adrian Grenier). There’s been a recent wave of “Nate is the worst boyfriend” takes, which are fair enough even if they’re slightly misdiagnosing the problem. Like the small subplots about Andy’s friends and her dad (both of which are also weak), Nate is meant to serve as a marker of just how far Andy has drifted away from who she used to be. But because Andy never actually seems to change for the worse, Nate’s complaints mostly come across as him whining about her missing his birthday party.
Yet there’s also something enjoyable subversive about the way that McKenna purposefully relegates Grenier and Simon Baker (who plays Andy’s other love interest) to the kind of thinly written, thankless roles that women usually have to play in big studio comedies. The Devil Wears Prada cares first and foremost about its central trio of women, including Emily Charlton (Emily Blunt), Miranda’s fashion-obsessed “first assistant” who reluctantly takes Andy under her wing. The Nate/Andy stuff never feels all that emotional, but the film wrings some real pathos out of the ups and downs of Emily and Andy’s complex friendship. (In her first Hollywood role, Blunt almost manages to steal the film from Streep, which is pretty damn impressive.) Rounding out the cast is Stanley Tucci as Runway art director Nigel Kipling, who fulfills a sort of reverse Smurfette principle in being the only interesting male character in the movie. Not only do a vast number of The Devil Wears Prada’s scenes pass the Bechdel test, there’s only one brief scene in which two men talk to each other, and they’re talking about Miranda.
More so than Nate’s whining, Nigel’s storyline serves as an effective warning about the toxicity of the fashion world. Having spent years as her loyal righthand man, Nigel is cruelly betrayed by Miranda in a last-minute political maneuver to save her own position. “When the time is right, she’ll pay me back,” Nigel quietly tells Andy after he learns this devastating news in a public gala. “You sure about that?” she asks. “No,” he responds. “But I hope for the best. I have to.” Giving one of the best performances of his career, Tucci beautifully conveys Nigel’s complicated relationship to an industry that has given him so much but also taken so much from him too. While Andy is clearly afraid of becoming someone like Miranda, who could so easily toss a friend and colleague under the bus, she’s perhaps also fearful of becoming like Nigel or Emily—two people who have thrown themselves down a grueling career path that might never have any real payoff depending on the whims of the capricious woman they serve.
The Devil Wears Prada ends with Miranda and Andy as neither friends nor enemies but simply two women who respect the fact that they want very different things in life. The film walks a fascinating line between admiring Miranda and criticizing her. As Alyssa Rosenberg put it in a piece about how The Devil Wears Prada presaged the age of antiheroines, “[Miranda’s] role in the movie is more ambiguous. She becomes the person against whom Andy defines herself, the avatar of everything Andy doesn’t want to be, who nonetheless gives Andy the reference that helps her pursue a career as a reporter.” For her part, Streep thinks the movie appreciates Miranda’s business accomplishments without ever fully celebrating her.
The issue of how sexism has shaped Miranda’s career path and, by extension, her personality, is something the film only openly verbalizes once (“If Miranda were a man, no one would notice anything about her, except how great she is at her job,” Andy notes), but it’s a question that runs throughout the film. As Streep told IndieWire for a 2016 retrospective, “Embedded in [The Devil Wears Prada novel] is what the perceived deficits are of women in a leadership position. Chief among them is to expect women to be endlessly empathetic, a sense of employees’ discomfiture that she doesn’t give a shit, all the things that they would not ask of a male boss. … There’s that expectation that hurts women more in leadership than it does men. I’ve seen that in so many different places.”
In other words, there’s a lot going on beneath the glamorous surface of The Devil Wears Prada. But, as I wrote about in my Breakfast At Tiffany’s column, if you go in thinking the film is “just a chick flick,” you can miss the depth of the subtext because you assume the film doesn’t have any. A lot of reviews cited the fact that Frankel had directed some episodes of Sex And The City as evidence that the film couldn’t possibly have any depth. The Chicago Reader called it “an agreeably shallow comedy”; The New Yorker praised the glamour of its surface-level story; Variety called it “sitcomy but tolerably entertaining”; Entertainment Weekly referred to the story as “glossy junk” before bizarrely speculating that the film’s best jokes were likely the work of uncredited male script doctors rather than McKenna herself. And those were just the positive reviews! For his part, Roger Ebert spent his review scathingly comparing the movie to a book for children.
Of course, there were plenty of more enthusiastically positive reviews as well, and audiences connected to the film in a big way. The Devil Wears Prada made $326 million worldwide (including about $125 million domestically) and has had massive cultural staying power—far more so than Superman Returns, for which it was positioned as counter-programming. It turned Anna Wintour into a pop culture icon, launched Emily Blunt’s career overnight, proved Anne Hathaway could carry films outside the tween demographic, and kicked off a new phase of Meryl Streep’s career as both a comedy star and a full-on leading lady. Plus it earned Streep a record-setting 14th Oscar nomination. And it did all that while feeling refreshingly unembarrassed about placing a multifaceted exploration of high-powered business dynamics alongside some fun fashion montages.
I don’t think The Devil Wears Prada succeeds solely because it downplays romance, although I do think we need more female-led comedies that do that. Instead, The Devil Wears Prada’s biggest success is in proving that the heightened aesthetics of the rom-com genre aren’t incongruous with nuanced storytelling and emotional realism. The Devil Wears Prada believes (as do I) that glossy, feminine stylistic choices have no less inherent value than violent, hyper-masculine ones. It just comes down to how well you use them. As Stanley Tucci put it when asked about why the film has had such staying power: “It’s a fucking brilliant movie. ... The brilliant movies become influential, no matter what they are about.”
Next time: Enchanted remains Disney’s most masterful princess subversion.