There's a reason why Carrie Bradshaw and her ilk were such a rallying cry for contemporary women. "Sex and the City" affirmed that you could be fashionable, feminine, adore clothes, but also love your career and bond with other women who felt the same way.
If only The Devil Wears Prada could as confidently revel in its distinctly female pleasures without a sense of guilt or school-marmish preaching. The fashion-centric The Devil Wears Prada is a film that speaks out of both sides of its mouth about women and fashion.
Director David Frankel's unholy scramble blends sophisticated comedy a la "Sex and the City" (he has directed six episodes of the show) and lower-order teen comedy with a tidy Seventeen magazine-worthy moral lesson.
Aspiring journalist and recent college grad Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway, looking especially milkmaid pink and creamy) arrives at the high fashion Runway offices with dreams of a journalistic stepping stone dancing in her head, toting a collection of college paper articles about "Take Back the Night" marches and janitor strikes. She learns that a year endured with the boss from hell, Runway editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), is a kind of career crucible with a glowing letter of recommendation at the end.
Should she fail, she will be sent to the sexless gulag of TV Guide, warns Miranda's first assistant, a deliciously nasty fashion slave played with eye-rolling gusto by Emily Blunt. Despite herself, Andy is sucked into a whirlpool of Jimmy Choos, Marc Jacob handbags, and a boss who must be approached like Hannibal Lecter, with a set of guidelines and precautions in place.
In its enjoyable opening, full of urbane jabs at poly blends and high school cafeteria-type petty snobbery, Miranda asserts her alpha-female dogma.
Trussed up in an asymmetrical helmet of steel grey hair and a whispering voice that promises gentility but breathes poison, Streep nevertheless brings more human warmth and dignity to the role than novelist Lauren Weisberger's caricatured boss-from-hell (based on her boss, Vogue's Anna Wintour). Streep's Miranda charms us despite her control-freak ways and power-tripping, probably because examples of such confidence and attitude in an older woman on screen (as in Jane Fonda's enjoyable Monster-in-Law turn) are so few and far between.
Frankel then takes great pains to establish that all is not froth and frippery. Andy is gradually hepped by Miranda and her queeny assistant, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), to the reality that fashion magazine rags have deeper cultural significance and aesthetic merit than she first suspects. "Greater than art," she's told. "Because you live your life in it."
But Frankel eventually caves to mainstream film convention, allowing Streep to vamp and queen in her fashion domain for a time before he kicks her to the curb for being a work-defined dragon lady.
As The Devil Wears Prada grinds on, Miranda and Nigel are subsumed by Andy's treacly love triangle with a sophisticated novelist played by Simon Baker, and a college boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) who represents the integrity and honesty that the newly fashiony Andy has lost.
It's all so bland that any time a man other than Tucci appears on screen, make that your cue to get popcorn.
By the film's middle half, The Devil Wears Prada turns a significant corner, arguing that fashion really is shallow and the best course for Andy is to flee.
Suddenly, you're reminded of the complaint some critics voiced about Brokeback Mountain: Why do the gay men always have to end up unhappy? And for a chick flick to pass Hollywood muster: Why do the women have to repent for their career ambitions? Why are high-powered female execs unmasked as unhappy, loveless crones?
Women in such films never get to have their cake and eat it, too.