Barracuda bosses can be great fun — as long as they’re kept at a proper distance, preferably on a movie screen.
Joan Crawford had only a few minutes of screen time to chew out her underlings in “The Best of Everything” (1960), but she established a new standard for playing the career woman from hell. In the 1986 comedy, “Working Girl,” Sigourney Weaver could be almost as chilling as the boss you love to hate.
Meryl Streep, who at 57 is reinventing her career with a series of irresistibly eccentric roles, is even bitchier in “The Devil Wears Prada,” based on Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 best-seller about her experiences at Vogue magazine.
Streep’s performance is the chief reason to see the picture, which otherwise follows a fairly conventional path to a resolution that would not be out of place in a 1930s melodrama about women forced to choose between family life and a career.
For adults looking for a summer comedy with some bite and sophistication, it’s definitely an improvement on the latest works of Jack Black and Adam Sandler. But you’ll guess exactly where it’s going in no time. Only Streep keeps it moving forward, underlining each insult and humiliation with a tasty twist, and she’s missed in every scene that isn’t about her.
Streep plays the ruthless editor of Runway magazine, Miranda Priestly, otherwise known as “that notorious sadist,” and loosely based on Weisberger's Vogue editor. Although the movie is focused on her fashion-challenged assistant, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), it’s the devilish Miranda who gets to chew the scenery and stylishly stir up trouble.
You can’t wait for her next temper tantrum, partly because each one is disguised as something else, and they’re almost always unwarranted. When Miranda demands that Andy come up with the galleys of the next “Harry Potter” novel, just so her twin girls can read the unpublished book before anyone else, she seems to have reached a point of no return. But for every outrage that reaches the limits, there’s another one waiting to happen.
Miranda demands nothing less than 24/7 servitude from her assistants, who also include the eternally depressed Emily (Emily Blunt), who fears that she’ll lose her job if Andy screws up, and the cautiously witty Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who warns his fellow workers to “gird your loins” when he sees Miranda coming.
The script’s central joke is that Andy, a journalist and recent college graduate who regards fashion as so much “stuff,” could not be less suited to her job. Miranda hires her because she thinks a “smart, fat girl” will be less “disappointing” (the most withering Miranda putdown) than her usual anorexic assistants.
Andy's dilemma gets old fast, and so does her makeover as a suddenly fashion-conscious creature. There’s not much Hathaway can do with these scenes, or with her attachments to a longtime boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) and a new flame (Simon Baker). Director David Frankel (“Sex and the City”) sometimes leaves her stranded. It’s Streep’s movie, and not just by default.