The bad boss, whose ambition and extravagant sense of entitlement are the foundation of his (in most cases, his) downfall, is one of the great archetypal villains in the history of American cinema. The examples are too numerous to count; films as diverse as Nine To Five, Office Space, The Firm, Norma Rae and The Apartment, as well as television’s The Office, highlight the eternal obsession with rank, privilege and the moral dilemmas that arise when we agree to do what someone else tells us to do. Things get even more complicated when that someone is morally and intellectually inferior to us. There are fun, interesting twists on the story as well; films like Secretary, which literalizes the mutually agreed upon sado-masochistic bond between boss and employee into a turn-on for everyone involved. The universal trope, however, usually involves a morally superior underling and an intellectually inferior boss, with the bad boss usurping credit from the employee and making his or her life a living hell until the employee takes righteous revenge and restores the moral order. Of course, if the bad boss character didn’t have its roots firmly planted in the day-to-day reality of most people, the narrative would never work. I’m sure Colin Powell has some stories to tell.
The type is so prevalent that the bad boss has become a cliché, which is why watching Meryl Streep pound Anne Hathaway into a model employee in David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada comes as a huge, delightful surprise. I have never read Lauren Weisberger’s novel, but the debate over her book began before the first page rolled off of the printing press; a former assistant to Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, Weisberger’s roman à clef reportedly describes Wintour’s excesses and cruelties as a boss (although Weisberger denies the connection.) I don’t read Vogue and am probably the least fashionable person you are likely to ever meet, so my interest in another bad boss story set in a world with which I have no connection held very little appeal to me and failed to light a spark in my limited pocketbook. A holiday weekend at the movie theater, however, provided an opportunity to hang out with a dear friend and the Mrs.-to-be and see what all the fuss was about.
I think the story goes without saying at this point, but as a recap for those who don’t know; The Devil Wears Prada is the story of Andrea Sachs (Hathaway), a young Ohioan and a recent graduate from Northwestern’s prestigious school of journalism (changed from Brown in the book, and Cornell in Weisberger’s real life) who goes on a job interview at Runway Magazine and walks away with the job “a million girls would die for”; assistant to the Editor-in-Chief Miranda Priestly (Streep), a critical, demanding, high-powered executive who constantly requires the prompt rendering of the seemingly-impossible. Working with Miranda’s more experienced and competitive assistant Emily (a wonderful Emily Blunt), Andrea overhauls her dowdy wardrobe and learns to master Miranda’s demands, falling into favor and earning a trip to Paris for fashion week. Ultimately, Andrea is confronted with the reality that her excellence at her job makes her complicit in Miranda’s value system and she must decide if she will continue to sacrifice her dignity to Runway or if she will walk away and possibly lose a chance in the publishing world, where Miranda’s influence runs deep. What’s a girl to do?
If the film traded in the unambiguous morality of most films in the bad boss genre, it would still be worthwhile, if only to catch Meryl Streep in one of her best performances to date as Miranda (and that is saying something). Streep oozes priviledge and ego, and her character is such a presence on-screen, it lends totaly credibility to the premise of and the world depicted in the film. This is a commanding, powerful woman and Streep has us laughing and hanging on her every word. But a funny thing happened to me on the way to moral indignation and comeuppance; I actually found myself sympathizing with Miranda. I don’t think my sympathy was based on acting chops; though I was in awe of Streep’s nuanced performance, I also thought Hathaway put in a game and funny turn as her struggling assistant. As a person, I am almost genetically encoded to root for the little guys when they face off against the big, bad boss (I have worked for my share of morons), but there is something that the film endows to Miranda Priestly that most on-screen baddies never receive; absolute credibility as a professional.
Where there’s a will, Anne hath a way: Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) and Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and in The Devil Wears Prada (Photo: Barry Wetcher)
Priestly’s Runway is a hugely successful enterprise, and the film portrays that success as the result of Miranda’s hard work and dedication to her company. Sure, it is Andrea’s job to wait for the mock-up of the magazine and deliver it to Miranda’s home at 10:30 at night, but we understand that it is Miranda’s deep understanding of the fashion industry that makes everything work; She’s the one staying up to all hours of the night, applying her exacting standards to the magazine. The film seems firmly on the side of Miranda’s standards, promoting the idea that the pursuit of perfection and the rejection of mediocrity are no way to run a business. I couldn’t agree more; working for a demanding boss who refuses second-rate work can actually be a privilege. Miranda’s excesses, which range from changing her mind after making Andrea do hard work to meet her demands to hinging Andrea’s job on her ability to track down an unpublished Harry Potter novel, seem almost fair in the light of Miranda’s overwhelming responsibility to carry Runway on her shoulders. I would never want to be a personal assistant, but as Andrea grumbled her way through another difficult task, I kept thinking to myself “What do you expect?”
As Andrea grows dexterous in her job, the movie becomes a lot less fun and Miranda’s acceptance of Andrea leads to the inevitable story of the reluctant corporate climber. That said, when Andrea ultimately walks away from her job, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was walking away because she recognized that she shared Miranda’s ambitions or if she was rejecting Miranda’s values altogether? I think the movie intended to make the latter point, but I don’t believe it for a minute. America tries to idealize its common man approach to our unspoken class structure, but at the risk of sounding like Liev Schreiber’s Carl in The Daytrippers, there is something to be said for passionate people working in whatever field they love and seeking perfection. Does this justify Miranda’s treating Andrea like shit? No, but it doesn’t justify Andrea excoriating her boss’s excesses either. In the end, what could have been a boring exposé of a typically bad boss becomes a far more interesting tug of war between two types of entitlement; that of the decadent master and the misguided expectations of her apprentice. I know where my sympathies lay.