Cinema Signal:

Meryl Streep: The Reluctant Superstar

. "The Devil Wears Prada"

If you were the editor of a leading fashion magazine, whose nod on a new dress design or wardrobe is a make or break determination for the design house, and whose assistant position had a lineup of a million contenders, you might be an unthinking, cold, demanding, barely human tyrant also. Trouble is, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is worse.

Aspiring journalist Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway, "Brokeback Mountain"), who can't seem to make a connection to a writing job, applies for the position without so much as a whiff of what awaits anyone who enters the Priestly offices. As bad luck would have it, Miranda goes against her first instinct in the presence of a girl with no sense of fashion and zero understanding of who she is nor what her magazine is about, hires her.

To the chagrin and disappointment of her immediate superior and trainer in the Priestley ways, Emily (rather beautiful and exceedingly well put together Emily Blunt, right).

Andy, a virtual job virgin, doesn't fully appreciate what she's got at first, but she's a smart and determined player in her own life and quickly picks up on the necessaries, appealing to Priestly's right hand man and house designer Nigel for a wardrobe of designer outfits in which she looks smashing, even while dressing down for her life with earthy, interesting boyfriend Nate (Adrien Grenier).

When grande dame Priestly recognizes the makeover and the dependability of her new assistant, changes take place in the office and in Andy's life, not altogether desirable ones. Success, even in the face of such demanding challenges, including the capacity to field insults, sometimes brings new challenges--worse, even, than the original ones.

In this story of dressy travail, Streep rules! From the moment of an early arrival that sends shivers of fear throughout her offices, to her finals line, "Go," she commands, both her royal court and the movie.

The reason Streep is the pinnacle of her profession is because of how far and thoroughly the actress can absorb us in the world view of her characters with no fragment of what we know of her native personality. She doesn't always take roles that allow for extremes, but the joy of watching this exploit of the art is right here. She's the gold standard of the profession. To enjoy it more, compare this doyenne creation to her down-home singer-entertainer in this year's "A Prairie Home Companion." Such transformation is her stock in trade. And, I'd suggest that a nomination for best actress looms large for a portrayal that must be seen and relished by every acting major from colleges to conservatories.

Hathaway, on the other hand, will receive no such recognition, but that's not to suggest she's any kind of failure within this framework. While the sweetness, overly pleasant, girl-next-door Cinderella quality is probably what won her the role --a girl no one in their right might could be critical of-- and while the tedium this creates puts some friction on the dynamics of the movie, her good training is evident, as is her accomplished comedic timing. If only we could have admired her more.

For color in an inevitable presence in the halls of haute couture, there's the note-perfect Stanley Tucci adding his touch to the effete expert who keeps the house standing and thriving in a cutthroat trade. If there's ever-dependability in a supporting character role, Tucci is the man.

The other man, the bad spirit who would take Andy down an evil path, luring her with his blond, good looks and better conections, is Simon Baker, formerly of "Land of the Dead" fame.

We get taken into romance complications and a smattering of the politics that prevail in any high-rolling industry but, mostly, this is a character study of excess estimation of self-worth in a woman so sufficiently domineering as to make it comedic, and the amusing effects on the object of her overlordship. It turns fashion obsession into fun.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
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