The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada is a sophisticated urban fairy tale with a conflicted moral.
The story’s Cinderella, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), is forced to choose between designer Stuart Weitzman shoes and her soul. Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is a domineering sadist who has cowed the fashion industry through the sheer force of her personality.
She’s the bad guy, the Cruella de Ville / Maleficent of this adult-themed Disney-sque movie.
Andy is fresh out of college and filled with lofty ambitions when she meets Miranda, the fashion editor of a highly successful glossy magazine. Unable to find work in any of New York’s newspapers, she applies for a job as Miranda’s second assistant, thinking that it will get her foot in the door. 
When she interviews for the position she’s dressed up like a dinner snack, wearing a frumpy sweater that fits her size six body too tightly. She might as well have “human chum” tattooed on her forehead, but Miranda hires her anyhow, maybe sensing the girl’s inner masochism.
A born pleaser and straight “A” student, Andy initially attempts to resist Miranda’s influence but eventually becomes seduced by the older woman’s powerful personality. She attacks the jobs mundane tasks with gusto, taking Miranda’s insane demands seriously.
In no time at all she’s transformed into an overachieving nobody, Miranda’s shadow. She frets over coffee, lives at the beck and call of her mistress, even does Miranda’s children’s homework. Her job obscures other parts of her life, and her lover Nate (Adrian Grenier) is less than thrilled to share his life with Miranda’s constant beeper.
The Devil Wears Prada moves in two directions simultaneously. The film starts out as a Killing Mrs. Tingle for the working set. In nature a creature this mercurial and fickle would be beaten to death by her underlings. Andy is a spunky, can-do kid, and we expect that she’ll exact some revenge on Miranda – teach the old bag a lesson.
On the other hand, Andy takes pride in her work and succeeds. She grows as a person in direct proportion to the amount of hours she works, and the film absolutely gushes over the fashion industry it seems to criticize.
The Devil Wears Prada attacks female careerism and feminism by showing what happens when women sacrifice their lives to their jobs. This reading says that behind every successful woman are at least two bitter divorces, neglected children and a highly paid psychologist.
Female professionalism and relationships are mutually exclusive, says this narrative. You can serve capitalism or you can be maternal, not both, and children always suffer when mommy tries to be the bread earner. Men are justifiably turned off when women take control. The devil is in the details and the details of Miranda Priestly’s life are unpleasant, suffocating and mean-spirited.   
But Andy flowers under this cruelty. She makes difficult choices that define her life, adapts to her situations, overcomes her challenges. She grows in unexpected ways, frightening her friends and boyfriend, who want her to remain a child.  (The suitable response to Nate’s whining when Andy misses his birthday is an exasperated sigh.)
Work changes us. We evolve under our stresses, learn how make difficult choices, sacrifice ourselves to tasks that have little to do with us as individuals. But work also gives our lives meaning, test us, forces us to accept parts of ourselves that we might otherwise disavow. In short, work is a way we understand ourselves.
The movie supports Andy’s decisions. Who wants a boyfriend who pouts when his girlfriend gets a chance to travel to Paris for her work or friends who chide her because she must keeper a beeper on her at all times? They sound like absolute jerks to me. She’s better off putting her energies into her career than folks who are so afraid of change that they’d rather their loved ones fail with them than succeed alone.
But the film is uneasy with itself.  On the one hand it wants to condemn Miranda as a dragon, a manifestation of feminine forces run amok. Andy should not have to choose between this woman’s whims and her personal life. But the fact is that Andy is better off knowing Miranda – and adopting her work ethic – than she was hanging out with her slacker friends.
The Devil Wears Prada suspends these two diametrically opposed viewpoints until the end, when it disintegrates into platitude. Three quarters of this film are complex and difficult, good art.
To beat the devil you must become the devil, but sometimes hell is just a place we go to figure out who we are.


Prairie Home Companion

Everything looks better in a rear view mirror.
The faster we’re propelled forward, the more we yearn for the past. If nothing else, A Prairie Home Companion is part of a continuity that began in the early 1970s, when Baby Boomers looked back through their tears to the simpler days of their youth.
Frustrated and angry that they could not transform the present, they claimed the past in shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Later Woodstock was eclipsed by the Wonder Years, a strangely revisionist narrative about how the sixties actually were the fifties in suburban America.
The Boomers still had ideas in the seventies and eighties, mind you. They just didn’t want to talk about them anymore. They wanted to escape back to greasy days at burger joints, American gas guzzlers, a world brought into focus by Sha Na Na.
What a collective nightmare to share with the rest of us. 
So here we have A Prairie Home Companion, a flawless Boomer artifact. The Baby Boom isn’t dying, friends, but it thinks it is, is absolutely obsessed with its mortality, and A Prairie Home Companion is drunk on nostalgia and finality.
Garrison Keillor, the genius of the Prairie Home Companion franchise, is one of those first brave Boomers who has tried out old age and he has something to say to the rest of us regarding the aging process:  “We don't look back in radio. We don't get old, and nobody dies.”
This would be less curious in a film about a contemporary radio program, a WKRP in Cincinnati for the millennium, say, but it strikes a false note when applied to the sappy drivel of A Home Prairie Companion. (This is, after all, a show the relishes the past, lives in a snow-globe world where, “the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”)
A Prairie Home Companion is an oasis for Boomers, a way of avoiding discussions of the 1960s and, (worse still) the 1970s when hard compromises had to be made. This isn’t a particularly shocking suggestion, but what is odd is how death literally stalks through this film. 
We open on the last night’s performance of A Prairie Home Companion, an old-time variety show. The film follows the structure of all good Muppet movies. The theatre is threatened by vague capitalists who don’t cherish the time-honored tradition of the project, and decide to sell out for a buck.
Anyone who has ever listened to the radio show will feel at home with the skits, which feature characters from the popular NPR program. Mixing fiction with reality, the film includes invented personalities such as the P.I. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) and Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) with Keillor and some of his real-life cast.
(Oddly missing are the self-absorbed ketchup-eating Baby Boomers who critique the generation on the on-air version of the show.)
Enter a strange woman in a white overcoat as the angel of death. The presence of such an overtly poetic figure short circuits what could have been a mostly bland mockumentary. It suggests a depth to this whole fiasco that the film is incapable of supporting and reveals the horrible truth… 
Baby Boomers have discovered death.
This is a crucial moment for every generation, like taking the training wheels off your bike. Boomers hid death away in a perpetual youth movement they could buy into, then in nostalgic poppycock, but it’s broken free. Their preoccupation with youth and melancholy has only been a taste: We’re now in for a 20-year diatribe about mortality.
There’s nothing worse than being self-absorbed about something that is self-negating.   
Prepare for Happy Days in the afterlife for the next several decades, friends. Maybe Baby Boomers will forget why they think they’re so special when they’re in their 80s.

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