Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Really Behind The Movies--The Devil Wears Prada

I recall seeing the novel upon which this film was based everywhere--maybe it was a time I spent many days in bookstores spending money I did not have. I must have had something in common with the film's main character played by Anne Hathaway--someone who knew little or nothing about the world of fashion. I recall web searching "Prada" during the apex of the book's popularity; if I was going to avoid pop culture, I needed to know a little more about what I was avoiding. I had no desire to read the book or watch the film, but this was another opportunity for a discussion topic with my dear wife. Wonderful thing about these films is that they provide some detachment from church topics, yet also provide theological grist for the mill should we decide to go in that direction. At the very least, I get to snuggle with my dear wife on the sofa.

I originally believed this movie would go toward the dark side of the Sex and The City series, a vapid depiction of gratuitous consumption in the fashion world. Thankfully, I was wrong about the story line, and it moved toward the good side of Sex and The City, which is sharp dialog, intriguing relationships and insightful social commentary. Though I don't know the book, the storyline avoids vapidity partly from the strong casting of Stanley Tucci and Meryl Streep. There is no way Anne Hathaway could carry this story on her own, and she is teetering on future typecasting with mere clumsy/awkward/tentative charm. She is uplifted in her films by some powerful and talented actors, like Tucci and Streep, and also Julie Andrews in The Princess Diaries (no need to review this one--it's like Prada but with no depth of social reflection). I hope Hathaway has taken copious notes on her colleagues' work with such close observations, for Tucci and Streep only magnify their versatility in this film.

It seems that Streep gives a screenplay writer of a popular novel a fighting chance for public discourse to proclaim that the movie matches the ethos of the book. A few Streep monologues ring powerful in this film above the craft of the story itself. In one scene that gives a primary lesson to Hathaway's fashion neophyte, Streep deftly, elegantly and implicitly describes that fashion does not deserve all of the critique from the masses: fashion is where art and beauty meet utility and accessibility. This convergence of beauty and utility also provides thousands and thousands of jobs, a point that couldn't be lost on Hathaway's character, who had won an award for covering a janitor union labor dispute in Chicago. Streep's character does this plausibly and beautifully (with just enough smugness) in a 3-minute scene while glancing at Hathaway's cerulean sweater.

Certainly this film will be entertaining for the fashion gawkers, and Hathaway provides plenty of fodder for that kind of entertainment. In the end, the wonderful surprise of this film is that different social perspectives come to this story, they meet and mingle, confront and question, and come out going their separate ways without acidic and destructive critique. For a story and film that reflects on image, the story is not preachy or overtly critical. It is possible for empathic feelings for all the characters, a rare feat in a story or film. This film was a pleasant surprise during this past week of a surreal and odd look at image through the deaths of 3 oddly different, yet similar public figures, Michael Jackson, Farah Fawcett and Billy Mays.

Image is much more complex than the over-simplification that can happen in popular media. This is not to say popular media doesn't play an important role in public discourse, only that it is incomplete. The Devil Wears Prada adds to the depth of discussion about image. I am currently reading a book by Chuck Klosterman that will take that depth to a new and enjoyable level. I will write on this book soon.

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