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Handbags From Hell 

by Ed Symkus & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & U & lt;/span & ppity clothes hounds who drooled over the designs in Sex and the City are going to get a charge out of the novel-to-screen adaptation of Lauren Weisberger's supposed expose on the Manhattan fashion scene. And Meryl Streep fans are going to rejoice that their favorite leading lady once again gets to play comedy -- albeit delivered in a fierce, biting style. But the rest of us ordinary folk, who aren't quite sure how to pronounce Versace and probably can't afford one piece of the couture on display here, will likely be wondering what the big deal is.


Weisberger's novel, based on her time spent as a second assistant to the editor of Vogue, played out as a story of hell on Earth. Much of that story has been softened here, but the character of fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly (Streep) still treats just about everyone she meets in the most disparaging manner. She's biting and demanding and ever-ready to toss off an insult, just because she can.


After a dismissive pre-interview for a position as assistant to the assistant to the editor of the fictional Runway magazine, it's to Miranda that wide-eyed and hopeful Andy (Anne Hathaway) must report. Fresh out of college, she's not really interested in the job; she'd rather be writing for The New Yorker. But she's heard that this position is a great starting point for any career she wants. It's not quite clear what Miranda sees in this "fashion-challenged" girl, but she hires her, much to the dismay of first assistant Emily (Emily Blunt, in a terrific, funny, and emotion-filled performance in which she's unrecognizable from her role as Tamsin in My Summer of Love), and Nigel (Stanley Tucci, also funny), the magazine's designer and resident fashion queen.


Sex and the City and Entourage director David Frankel fills his film with beautiful people, skinny women and dazzling office spaces, but he depends too much on exaggerated circumstances. An early sequence has every staff member at the magazine running around the office, manically tidying the place -- to loud soundtrack music -- to prepare for the arrival of Miranda, and we're to assume this goes on each morning. As his two main characters -- Miranda and Andy -- develop their personal arcs, Frankel goes for quick changes -- in the editor's behavior and, more literally, in the assistant's clothing -- too often. This type of thing gets as tiring as the constant smile on Andy's overworked face.


And right there is the main reason the film doesn't work. Anne Hathaway, who made her name as a fresh-faced actress in movies such as The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted, then turned to darker work, including Brokeback Mountain and the wretched Havoc, has proved that she can hold her own as long as the part isn't very demanding, as long as she doesn't have to show much range. This story is supposed to be about how the snake-filled fashion industry grabs an innocent young woman and changes her into someone her closest friends don't recognize. But that big widescreen smile never leaves her, no matter how bad things are going. Oh, she may frown when her boyfriend, Nate (a solid, relaxed performance by Entourage's Adrian Grenier), is unhappy that she seems to be choosing work over him. But then she's over it, and smiling, and on to the next party in a snap. Maybe this is the director's fault, maybe it's because Hathaway doesn't have the chops to deliver. But there's a point in the story where she comes to the realization that she's made an error in judgment. The scene desperately needs something like the "What have I done?" moment that comes to Alec Guinness near the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai, but here it's nowhere to be found.


Without a believable central character, the film depends almost completely on Streep. And she certainly answers to the call. Unlike the truly nasty Miranda of the novel, Streep's is calm and firm in her approach to being abusive to those working for her. "Is it impossible?" to do this or that, she asks someone. Or, when finished speaking with any of her lowly staffers, she dismisses them curtly with a sing-songy "That's all." It's a phrase that's repeated as many times as James Bond might toss off a hokey one-liner. But Streep does it brilliantly.


The film gains some depth with a trip to Paris, some hints at problems in Miranda's home life, some insight about the dark side of the business, and a budding friendship between Nigel and Andy. But it all turns out to be a case of formulaic storytelling. Amid all the glitz, sleek fashions and backstabbing, the requisite happy ending can be seen coming from clear across the Atlantic.





The Devil Wears Prada, Rated: PG-13; Directed by David Frankel Starring Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Adrian Grenier

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