Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dear Anne Hathaway, Are You Aware Your Character Was Raped In The Devil Wears Prada?

The Good: Costumes, Moments of acting
The Bad: Characters make little sense, Plot is predictable, Mood
The Basics: When Andy Sachs moves to New York City to work for a magazine, she ends up as a personal assistant to a ruthless editor in a pointless movie.

For those who might not follow my movie and music (and I suppose even my tea reviews), I tend to review things from a feminist perspective. I am a proud liberal who believes in freedom over government control and equality over classes. I also tend to review movies in such a way that does not reveal the end or elements that come in near the end, out of respect for those who might actually go and see the film I am (or am not) recommending. After all, there's still the sanctity of those "I am your father" moments in cinema and I work to maintain them. However, after seeing The Devil Wears Prada, my feminist outrage is overriding my cinema integrity argument and as a result, this review will reveal one or two elements that come into the movie rather late. You're warned up front and as a result, I'm going ahead because the problems I experienced with the movie were pretty solid, but they do reveal one or two late elements in the movie.

After seeing Anne Hathaway in Get Smart, I decided that I could stand to see a lot more of her works. As such, I put in requests at my library for anything of hers I could find on DVD. The first film to arrive was The Devil Wears Prada, a movie I had not caught in the theaters, nor read even a single review of. As I understand it, the movie is based on a book and with my usual disclaimer, this is a review of the film as a standalone project. If my gripes with the movie are addressed in the book, that's fine, but as far as the movie goes, this is what we have.

Andrea "Andy" Sachs is a graduate of Northwestern University who has moved to New York City to get a job as a reporter, rather than go on to Stanford Law. In New York City, Andy hangs out with her boyfriend and two friends until the day she is able to score an interview at Runway. Runway, a fashion magazine, is a far cry from where Andy wants to be and instead of dealing with content, she is granted a job as personal assistant to the editor, Miranda Priestly.

Miranda is pretty much the archetypal domineering female boss who is demanding without any sense of humanity. Andy rejects the lifestyle of the size two to four crowd while in her service until one demand after another wears her down. In the process, she tries to fulfill her own goals, but mostly runs petty errands for a woman who does not care about her or her ambitions.

The Devil Wears Prada reminds the viewer that it's tough to do a good "coming of age" story today because there have been so many of them done before. This is essentially the story of Andy Sachs learning to stand up for herself and follow her own dreams and the entire movie is the brief period she spends getting off track. This sort of selling out to the fashion industry might seem remotely interesting if it hadn't already been done. Indeed, Just Shoot Me! managed to do the essential plot of this movie in a single half-hour episode.

And going into The Devil Wears Prada, the viewer has pretty much the right idea of where the movie is going. One of three things will happen by the end of the movie: Andy will either learn the value of being independent and stand up for herself and her dreams, Andy will sell out and become the next Miranda and/or Miranda will soften into an actual human being and learn a valuable lesson on her own. From the very beginning, Miranda is characterized as someone who has been established for quite some time, so fortunately the film does not disappoint the viewer with the family-friendly, "antagonist gets what's coming to them" ending. As for the other two options, I won't ruin that "surprise."

The thing is, in the process of getting mired in the corporate and style worlds, Andy becomes an utterly unlikable character. While we might be rooting for her from the outset, by the time she happily asserts to Nigel that she is now a size four, she is utterly unlikable and the viewer lacks any empathy for her. She has made her choice and whether or not she chooses to change back, she has spent the lion's share of the movie as a jerk and frankly, we want to see characters who are more interesting than that.

But even more troubling than that is where the movie goes and fails to go while getting there. In the process of meeting Miranda's ridiculous demands, Andy finds herself dealing with a writer named Christian Thompson. Christian helps Andy get such things as the unpublished "Harry Potter" manuscript for her daughters to read and he is characterized as both an opportunist and a guy who genuinely likes Andy. In fact, it is almost easy to overlook the degrading way he accepts that Andy has a boyfriend and does not express interest in the personal or professional advances he makes with her.

But the moment The Devil Wears Prada fell into the "not recommend" category for me was the moment Christian rapes Andy and the movie brushes it off like it's just not a thing. Stereotypes and confusion exist in societies that do not make their rules or mores clear. Laws and legal precedents help to make rules clear, even when society might not want to embrace them. Granted, there are differences in perspective, but legally, a woman who has an inability to consent is raped whenever a man takes advantage of that lack of consent. In Paris, Andy tells Christian "no." She says it clearly. He presses on. She admits she has had too much to drink. He presses on. She tells him she is confused and in a strange city, while backing off. He presses on. What comes next is rape and it's not a little technicality; drunk women do not have the capacity to consent and that The Devil Wears Prada simple expresses the sex as a natural, normal and LEGAL courting ritual is offensive and the antithesis of entertainment. This sort of "she really wanted it" type sexual encounter on screen makes a mockery of the established laws and basic tenants of decency and it's astounding that more feminists have not lampooned this film for just that reason.

Similarly, Miranda is utterly unlikable, re-establishing for the audience that in order to work in the "man's world," a female boss must play the bitch. In The Devil Wears Prada, though, it quickly becomes clear that Miranda is not playing. She is the archetype and the stereotype and there is pretty much nothing redeeming about her. Sure, she pays lip service to caring about her children especially as the film reaches its climax and plot events strain even that relationship. But, for example, Miranda chastises Andy for not getting her on a plane out of Florida when a hurricane hits and no planes are flying. The viewer sits and waits for Andy to just point out something like, "Hey, you can't always get what you want and I don't control the weather." People who are only used to getting what they want, like Miranda and Christian, are especially irritating to watch in movies.

The flip side of that, though, is that it soon becomes baffling that Andy decides to play the game as opposed to fight the established order of things, especially when it becomes clear that characters like Nigel and Emily are not the people she wants to become. Her refrain of "I'll stick it out because this could be a great springboard to other things" becomes tired the moment she starts dressing in the outfits and playing the game. The character putting up with all of the loathsome demands of Miranda only makes sense so long as it becomes clear that she has an external goal that will take her away from this life and that sense is quickly lost in the "Anne Hathaway looks fabulous" montages.

And Anne Hathaway looks fabulous, but it doesn't take much for a woman of her innate beauty to look good on film because, so long as the camera is loaded, it's going to catch what is there. Hathaway's opening shots are roughly the equivalent of saying that Betty (on Ugly Betty) is ugly because she wears glasses and braces. These are ridiculous (I'm trying not to overuse the word "stupid" in this review) arguments and from the first moments she hits the screen, Hathaway's Andy looks like she belongs even if her clothes do not match all those of the people around her.

As far as the acting goes, Simon Baker, whom I recognized from his work in the underrated movie Something New plays Christian and whenever he pops up he manages to be a little more than just a pretty face. Conversely, Stanley Tucci provides his usual solid performance as Nigel. Tucci's problem here is that he is given yet another seemingly monolithic role, like he had in Swing Vote where the character is given one genuine moment and the rest of the time, he is essentially an accessory to the powerhouse players. Tucci makes the best of it, though, and the lone scene where his character is humanized beyond the "type," he steals from Hathaway handily.

As for Anne Hathaway, it is easy to see why her star is on the rise. In addition to being young and beautiful (which is the Hollywood type), she is articulate and manages to make the little actions like Andy snickering or rolling her eyes at the absurdities of the culture the focal point of her character. As a result, the viewer misses them when they erode and are gone. Hathaway rightly does not re-establish those idiosyncrasies in the finale, though, which does make the viewer believe that Andy has undergone some profound and changing experience, even if it was not the most incredible story ever told.

But given that Meryl Streep is given the top billing, it seems like she ought to bear the brunt of the acting critique and it's too easy on this front. When I was in college, I worked at a department store and whenever I had to watch the Electronics Department over the worker's breaks, it seems I would get stuck watching the live-action 101 Dalmatians. That movie starred Glenn Close and Streep as Miranda is simple Streep doing Close as Cruella DeVille. There is nothing Streep brings to the part that Close didn't already do in that other role and my sense was director David Frankel could have saved some dough and used Close instead. Whether this is a stretch for Streep or not, I can't honestly say; I'm not as familiar with her work as I ought to be. But she plays the role consistently enough that the viewer does not like Miranda.

Unfortunately, this viewer ultimately did not like the movie. The more I write about it and consider it - especially the fact that in France or not, Andy is raped and the movie fails to address that in any way - the less I like it. Sure, it is stylish and well shot and the whole thing is easy enough to look at. But all of the main characters are robbed of their likability, no matter how they are initially established.

And I, for one, don't find that entertaining or worth watching.

On DVD there are behind-the-scenes featurettes, many of which repeat what is in the commentary track. The bonus features are pretty much what one would expect of this type of drama and they are neither a selling point, nor a detraction.

For works featuring Anne Hathaway, please check out my reviews of:
Anne Hathaway For Wonder Woman!
Love And Other Drugs
Family Guy Presents: It's A Trap!
Alice In Wonderland
Valentine's Day
Twelfth Night Soundtrack
Bride Wars
Rachel Getting Married
Get Smart
Brokeback Mountain
The Princess Diaries


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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