This was the other movie [the first was The Lake House] that I watched on my nine-hour flight from Italy back to New York. I was obviously wayyy too far above the common movie pap of the popular audience to even consider seeing it while in theaters, but a bunch of people I respect told me that it’s pretty good, so by the time it appeared on my plane I was more than happy to carve out a few hours from my busy, action-packed, sitting-in-one-seat-between-two-people-for-nine-hours flight to try to squeeze this one in.
We open with our heroine Andy getting dressed for her big interview while the first selection of the hit soundtrack, featuring a alluring array of fizzily fashionable tracks from yesterday and today, plays over the credits. Andy comes into the office of Runway magazine [a thin disguise for Vogue] and meets with Emily, the assistant to Miranda Priestly [a thin disguise for Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue]. Emily is played with wonderfully engaging gusto by Emily Blunt. This whole scene, somewhat edited, became the trailer for this movie. Emily is prepared to hide Andy from the eyes of Miranda because she’s considered such an aesthetic horror—“fat” at a size eight and dressed in a way that most people would find adorable but the fashion people find an offense to humanity. She also meets Nigel, a photo editor [I think?] played by the always-welcome Stanley Tucci. When word comes up that Miranda is on her way into the office, it causes general panic as women take off their comfortable shoes and put on tall heels, put away personal items, and generally freak out.
Meryl Streep as Miranda comes in, cutting down Emily in her quiet, insinuating voice that never, ever rises for the duration of the movie. Using her voice as one of the primary tools of her characterization, Streep plays Miranda as someone who maintains her power over people by adopting an attitude of weary tolerance, unwilling to become enthusiastic or upset about anything. She asks to see Andy, and asks her why she wants to work in a fashion magazine as “you have no fashion sense.” When Andy starts to say something, Miranda interrupts “No, no, you don’t.” Anyway, Andy makes a big speech about how she may not know fashion now but she’s smart, and this is enough to win Miranda over, and Andy is offered the low-paying internship she wanted.
Andy wants to be a serious journalist, and considers this opportunity at Runway to be her ticket to the big leagues. Okay, maybe, but one aspect the movie kind of glosses over is that maybe the sort of connections she might make at Runway would not necessarily be the connections that would best suit her as a serious journalist. But Andy from the start is quite clear that she considers fashion ridiculous, and is only willing to do her job for the experience, but not as a real part of the fashion industry. Her and her group of friends [including her aspiring chef boyfriend] have already raised a glass to “jobs that pay the rent,” and now Andy says of her job: “I just have to stick it out for one year.”
Emily instructs Andy in how to handle her assistant position with an emphasis on how hopeless Andy is and how superior she herself is. She tells Andy that she must never, ever leave her desk unattended. “One time an assistant left her desk because she sliced her hand open with a letter opener, and she’s now working for TV Guide.” Blunts casual delivery of the “sliced her hand open with a letter opener” is perfect, the line has gone by before you’re even sure what you heard. And a lot of the movie is like that.
There are two major scenes of defense of the fashion industry, but mostly they’re justifications of how much money the industry makes and how many people are influenced by it, which still doesn’t explain why it’s important in any way or why it’s a subject anyone should devote any thought to. In the biggest of them, Andy chuckles because two belts that are being talked about as wildly different look exactly the same to her, leading Miranda to describe the process the blue of her sweater goes from people sitting around a table deciding what color everyone will wear next, through high fashion all the way down to low, where Andy is described as having picked it up off a sale table. Okay, so fashion is influential on what people wear, but if you’re not in fashion, who cares what people wear? I am perfectly fine with accepting that what I’m wearing is influenced by the fashion industry, but I don’t think that supports the idea that fashion matters in any way. I’m still out on whether this is a subtlety of the movie, trying to give the fashion industry’s side while undercutting it, or whether this IS the fashion industry’s side, and they just don’t really have an argument.
But it’s not easy for Andy. After a long montage in which Miranda enters every morning and dumps her coat on Andy’s desk, there’s a scene in which Andy is trying to have dinner and a Broadway show with her father, but Miranda calls and needs Andy to get her a flight out of Florida—during a hurricane. Andy is talking furiously into her cell phone for the rest of dinner and all the way to the show. The scene ends before we see if she went so far as to skip the show, which I would like to know. Nevertheless, the point is that those closest to her are noticing that she’s changing. And the change reaches a new peak when she whines to Nigel that she “can’t do anything right” for Miranda, and he complains about her in-it-but-not-of-it attitude, saying that she has to either get with the program or face being sidelined. Andy gets Nigel to give her a ton of designer clothes from the magazine, and she turns into a mega fashionista, and succeeds at various tasks Miranda sets for her. And soon Miranda is dumping her coat on old assistant Emily’s desk.
Ah, but priorities! Andy has been growing further from her friends and her boyfriend, and skips his birthday, for which they had big plans, because she “has” to go to some party. When she gets home he doesn’t want to talk to her. “You used to pretend that this was just a job,” he says. “That’s fine, just own up to it.” Then Andy has to go deliver “the book” [the mock-up of the next issue] to Miranda, who offers her one glimpse of depth and sympathy when she appears without make-up and informs Andy that she is getting divorced. She can see the headlines: “Another divorce. Dragon lady. Career obsessed.” Actually, before this Andy went to Miranda’s house and when we see Miranda’s twin girls, they’re oddly presented like the creepy twins of The Shining, itself a steal from a famous photograph by Diane Arbus.
SPOILERS > > >
So this whole time Emily has been looking forward to going to Paris with Miranda for some huge fashion thing, but she gets hit by a car and put in the hospital. Then Miranda decides that Andy will accompany her instead, and orders Andy to break the news to Emily. She feels bad, but she does it. Then we learn that Nigel has secured a great position at a fashion house, which he is deliriously excited about. We also learn that Andy is now down to a size four.
So she goes to Paris. Soon after she touches down, she learns that Miranda is going to be fired. She’s too old. She rushes to tell her, even breaking up a romantic interlude to warn her, but Miranda brushes her off. The next day we learn that in order to keep her job, Miranda has arranged for Nigel’s position to go to this woman she hates, screwing Nigel mightily.
Then it all comes together in a final conversation with Miranda in the back of a car. Miranda tells Andy that “I see a great deal of myself in you,” to which Andy replies “I could never do what you did to Nigel.” “You already did,” Miranda says. “You chose. You did it to Emily.” Andy thinks about this, and I think says something along the lines of “I didn’t want this,” to which Miranda says “Everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us.” Andy thinks about it, they part ways, and the next time Miranda calls she chucks her cell into the nearest available fountain and heads back to New York.
There she meets her boyfriend [at Mayrose, for all you New Yorkers] and he immediately takes her back. Then she gets an interview at some serious magazine, and the guy there says “Miranda says you were her biggest disappointment. She also says I’d be crazy not to hire you. You must have done something right,” which echoes Andy’s complaint throughout the film that she “can’t do anything right.” < < < SPOILERS END
It’s a lot better than it might seem, even after watching it, because the script is so carefully balanced and wonderfully written. I don’t know how much of this actually comes from the book, but the script excellently places lines throughout [like the “I can’t do anything right” thing] that are later reflected back ironically and accrue meaning as the film goes on. It’s also a subtle story about not choosing, and finding later that this itself is a choice, losing one’s convictions slowly and without noticing, wanting something you don’t really want but go after it because “everybody wants this.” This is part of what makes the line “everybody wants to be us” the final focal point of the movie, as it sets everything that has come before in a new context and convincingly forces Andy to think “No, I really don’t want this.” I’d be interested to know how much of this actually originates in the book, but I’m inclined to believe that the screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, excellently moved the focus away from a screed on what a horrible witch Miranda is and shaped it into a study of a quiet loss of values. It’s only too bad that it’s so subtly written that one can watch the movie and know it’s good without knowing exactly why.
Now, since I put this review up a reader has written me to excoriate me about making judgements about the book without first reading it, that the book did not just portray Miranda as a witch and that the screenwriter actually dumbed-down the screenplay for the movie. Then my friend who has also read the book said no, the book portrayed Miranda as a witch and was a total character assassination, and the screenwriter broadened the focus and really added a lot of subtlety. So I guess all we can say is that the controversy rages to this day.
Everyone is decent, with Andy being suitably adorable and sympathetic, but Emily Blunt really standing out as Emily. Streep, as I write this up for an Oscar for her performance, is very good, but I don’t know that this is Academy Award material. I’d rather switch her out with Charlotte Rampling in Heading South. Streep creates such an overwhelming character that she is quite distinctive and stands out—and of course, she’s great—but I’m not sure this is what I’d hand her an Oscar for.
So there you go, a light and fluffy movie that ha a great deal more depth and careful interweaving of themes than one might think—even after having seen the movie.
Sure, if you want to.