The Devil Wears Prada

The juiciest thing about “The Devil Wears Prada” (the 2003 novel as well as the new movie version of it) is that it’s probably based on a true story. The novelist, Lauren Weisberger, worked for Vogue magazine’s infamously difficult editor Anna Wintour in 1999-2000, and the dragon lady of “The Devil Wears Prada” — the fictional Miranda Priestly at the fictional Runway magazine — is clearly based on Ms. Wintour, Weisberger’s half-hearted claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Feeding on the fact that nearly everyone has had an unreasonable boss before, and that we all love a good bit of randy gossip, the film adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada” overcomes some of the novel’s weaknesses to become a snarkily enjoyable story. And the best part? Meryl Streep.

With a carefully coiffed wave of white hair and impeccably stylish clothes, Streep’s Miranda Priestly looks like Cruella DeVil, thus further confusing the people who think Meryl Streep and Glenn Close are the same person. (I know I’ve never seen them together.) She reigns over the Runway office like the Queen of Hearts, crisply delivering instructions that are impossible to decipher, impossible to execute, or both. She needn’t declare “Off with their heads!” like the Queen, though. One purse of her lips and you know you’ll never work in the magazine world again.

And Andrea “Andy” Sachs (Anne Hathaway) wants to be her assistant. Just out of college and eager to get her foot in the door in the publishing industry, bright and optimistic Andy doesn’t know a thing about fashion and has never heard of Miranda Priestly, but she’ll take any journalism-related job she can get. She signs on as Miranda’s No. 2 assistant, preceded in seniority and status by Emily (Emily Blunt), a Miranda-in-training who will make it big in the fashion world herself if she doesn’t have a nervous breakdown first.

What’s it like to work for Miranda? Well, obviously she’ll call you at all hours of the day or night and expect you to do her bidding. In addition, she gives instructions only once, usually without enough information to actually carry them out, and she does not abide follow-up questions. If you need additional info, you ask a co-worker (if you can find one who hasn’t fled at the sight of Miranda) and quickly learn everything there is to know about Miranda so that next time you don’t have to ask. And be prepared, if your name is Andrea, for her to call you Emily anyway.

Streep sashays through this perilous role — it would be so easy to overplay her — with perfection, never going over the top, never reducing Miranda to mere caricature. She gets exactly two scenes in which to show the chinks in Miranda’s armor, to humanize her, and she handles them expertly. (In the more crucial of those two scenes, I was reminded of the moment in “Return of the Jedi” when one of Darth Vader’s underlings walks in on him just as he’s putting his mask on and we catch a glimpse of his hideous unguarded head.) It’s enormously satisfying to watch a talented actress do so much with a slight modulation in her voice or a subtle shift in her facial expression.

Also contributing to the film’s vibe of funny, snobbish bitchery is Stanley Tucci as Nigel, Runway’s artistic director and a veteran in the business of dealing with Miranda. Once again, the role could have been a garishly overdone stereotype — a gay man working at a fashion magazine?! Now I’ve heard everything! — but Tucci snaps off his one-liners with flair and delivers his Important Speeches with sincerity.

I confess to not caring very much about Andy’s (remember Andy, the protagonist?) personal life, what with her chef boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) being driven away from her by her taxing work schedule and the changes in her overall personality. “You’ve become one of them,” Nate tells her, an example of the screenplay (by Aline Brosh McKenna) spelling out its themes in obvious language.

I wonder, too, how much mileage the movie is hoping to gain by showing fabulous people wearing fabulous clothing. One montage depicting Miranda’s rudeness (arriving each morning and dumping her coat and purse on Andy’s desk) has Streep in a succession of high-fashion ensembles and serves little purpose other than to show her wearing them. This had little effect on me. I thought Andy looked fine to begin with, and in one scene after she had switched to wearing expensive couture, I thought she had switched back again, only to discover that the hideous outfit she was now wearing was, in fact, “fashionable.” So I’m not the right one to ask.

But the movie is fun, if nothing else, directed by “Sex and the City” vet David Frankel with an appropriate measure of panache and sarcasm. It makes some weak stabs at analyzing crappy post-college jobs and showing how fashion relates to the soul, but it still isn’t very substantive and probably would have been even less so without Meryl Streep in the lead. Enjoy it for what it is, though: fresh and breezy, and comforting when you realize your boss isn’t as bad as Miranda.

B (1 hr., 49 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity -- MPAA says "for some sensuality," but that's a stretch. It's a PG movie..)