MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

If 'Pirates' wore 'Prada' all of the demographic bases would have been covered

If there were any single place on Earth for a crowd-phobic adult to avoid Saturday night, it would have been the local multiplex. Only 24 hours old, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” had already grown to juggernaut proportions, and I feared downtown Monrovia – that’s in the “other” Valley, for you west-siders and non-Angelinos – would be swarming with teenagers looking for their weekly dose of summer action. It wasn’t.
That’s not to take anything away from “POTC Redux,” though. In our neck of the San Gabriel Valley, the buccaneer blockbuster was playing on no fewer than 21 screens within a 15-minute drive, and it had already enjoyed a monster Friday. By the time we arrived, the 2½-hour picture already was playing in three of the four auditoriums in which it was being shown – “Superman Returns” occupied three of the other eight – so it’s difficult to know how many of our neighbors had similarly ventured forth in the sweltering summer heat.
The multiplex was bustling, but not nearly as chaotic as was feared. With the exception of the Krikorian Cinema 12’s costumed employees – out here in the boonies, even the purveyors of popcorn are expected to put on a show – there proved to be nothing to fear on this night.
Heck, across the street in the park, amateur astronomers had even set up humongous telescopes to record the passing of the space shuttle. If it weren’t for the mountains that towered over the town on its northern border, Monrovia could have passed – and often does – as Hollywood’s version of Anywhere USA.
Should I have been surprised? Probably not. I’d never completely bought the hype about the industry being in a “slump,” so there was no reason to accept the media’s new contention that it was rallying and lines comprised of unruly youths would extend around the block. We’d been to these theaters many times before, and always found them to be clean, comfortable and only occasionally occupied by customers more concerned with their cellphones than the feelings of their neighbors. (Out here, folks don’t accept it as a fact of life that everyone within earshot is entitled to their opinions.) Young people tended to stay on their side of the multiplex, while adults rarely partook in the raunchier fare favored by their children.
Nonetheless, my wife and I were in no hurry to see “POTC,” a film likely to appeal to members of both camps. It probably would be around another week or so, before being entering the DVD marketplace sometime around Labor Day (O.K., Halloween). Johnny Depp may be a lot of things – most of them very good — but he isn’t an actor who demands the attention of the office-water-cooler crowd, come Monday morning. (Maybe if he appeared on “Desperate Housewives,” and moved in with Teri Hatcher, that, too, would change.)
Instead, we agreed to check out “The Devil Wears Prada,” expecting the theater to be empty – our fellow adults also fearing the prophesized mayhem — and Meryl Streep to be as wonderful as advertised. Upon arrival, the lines at the box-office were shorter than anticipated, even if many of the customers were paying with credit cards. (Who ever thought that was a good idea?) It made me wonder if Fandango and other pre-sale outlets were having a positive impact on business, or the kids behind the windows were just that efficient. A article in Monday’s New York Times would argue the latter, since, at best, a mere 8 percent of ticket-buyers use these services, which add a “service” fee to each transaction.
Lo and behold, upon entering the amphitheater-style auditorium, it immediately became clear that we wouldn’t be alone for the screening. Indeed, the racked portion of the theater was nearly full, while the neck-ache seats on the floor were partially occupied, as well.
The faces in the crowd looked very much like our’s … closer to the age of Meryl Streep than that of co-star Anne Hathaway. And, for all the cautionary notes in reviews labeling “Prada” a chick-flick based on a chick-lit best-seller, maybe 40 percent of those faces belong to males. This isn’t to suggest that the guys arrived voluntarily, one that they were there and none was heard whimpering about being forced to miss a ballgame.
The movie progressed with many outbursts of laughter, and very few visits to the loo or concession stand. And, as the final credits rolled, most of the guys walked out of the theater with one those begrudging smiles that indicated “Prada” wasn’t anywhere near as painful as they’d feared it would be. The smiles worn by their partners said something else … “I told you so.”
And, why not? They were right.
Although most of the reviews were complimentary, just mentioning the word “chick flick” in the first several paragraphs usually is enough to eliminate half the potential audience for a picture. Generally, even “chicks” find such movies insufferable, but what else is there?
Such titles as “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Ready to Launch,” “Alex & Emma,” “Le Divorce” “The Family Stone,” “Must Love Dogs.” “Shopgirl” and “The Wedding Date” are to men what movies featuring Seth Green, Johnny Knoxville, Carrot Top and the Three Stooges must be to women. For every film that transcends the chick-flick curse – “As Good as It Gets,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “The Upside of Anger,” come immediately to mind – there are a dozen like “Rumor Has It,” “Irresistible,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Monster-in-Law” that squander the box-office currency of such actors Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda, Glenn Close and Susan Sarandon.
Not only is Streep’s performance in “Prada” wickedly funny, but it also has the added benefit of ringing absolutely true. Her Miranda Priestly may be a monster, but she’s recognizable as the kind of ego-manical boss – Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, Leona Helmsley and apparently Anna Wintour – who are despised and admired in equal measure by their employees, TV viewers and greedy MBAs. Streep owns Priestly in much the same way as Close embodied Cruella DeVil, in “101 Dalmations.”
Magazine publishing is a particularly nasty dodge. No one should doubt that Streep’s Priestly is anything more than a slight exaggeration or loose composite. Most editors would eat their children if it meant securing the first photographs of Tom and Katie’s “miracle child.”
“The Devil Wears Prada” worked for me, and, I suspect, others in the audience, as a Disney fairy tale for contemporary adults. Think of Priestly as a direct descendent of the evil Queen in “Snow White,” or Cinderella’s cruel stepmother, Maleficent, De Vil or the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland,” and you’ll know immediately what Hathaway’s impossibly out-of-touch Andy Sachs is up against as her junior assistant. (Priestly’s style-obsessed senior aide, as played by Emily Blunt, likewise appeared to be taking her cues from Cinderella’s cruel stepsisters, Drizella and Anastasia.)
There’s also a Prince Charming, but, while handsome, he isn’t as chivalrous as we’re led to believe. That he turns out to be a heel is a decidedly modern conceit: he’s rich, handsome, powerful and connected … what’s the problem?
Liberties have been taken with the novel, of course, but only those who’ve read the book will bother to mention them. If the performances by Streep, Hathaway, Blunt and Stanley Tucci weren’t so appealing, the sizable holes in the story might be far more problematic. People would walk out of the theater comparing the movie to the book, and wishing out loud that the filmmakers had trusted the text. That wasn’t the case here.
Even so, Hathaway is far too naive and uninformed to be anything but a fairy-tale waif, while her live-in “hottie” boyfriend (Adrian Grenier, of “Entourage”) looks as if he belongs on another coast entirely. Priestly tests Andy with tasks that are so difficult to perform that their sheer ridiculousness detracts from the flow of the movie. The accident that frees Andy to take Emily’s spot at the Paris shows also is far too conveniently timed.
We expect so little of Hollywood comedies these days, however, the occasional absurdist moment in an otherwise entertaining movie is easily forgiven.
Another major plus is the producer’s decision to film entirely on location in New York City and Paris. “Prada” is such a site-specific picture that Toronto would have stuck out like a sore thumb. “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” also set in the world of magazine publishing, was partially filmed in Canada and it looked like it.
Every time the camera panned back to display a panoramic view of New York’s bridges, skyscrapers and the theater district, the two women sitting next to me started cooing like doves. Shooting in Manhattan might have been expensive, but the decision likely will pay dividends in verisimilitude. Paris also looked great.
Even so, the production reportedly was budgeted at a modest $35 million, a small fraction of the cost of “Superman Returns,” “POTC” or even “Poseidon.” For the past two weeks, “Prada” has held its own against two of the season’s most anticipated movies, racking in $63.6 million on 1,200 fewer screens than either blockbuster. With a little patience on the part of Fox and exhibiters, it might even prove to have longer legs than those films.
Is there anything else to be gleaned here? Meryl Streep may be the most gifted actress of our time, but her presence doesn’t guarantee success at the box office. She’s terrific in “A Prairie Home Companion,” as well, but the $13 million its made certainly has more to do with Garrison Keillor’s substantial fan base than her duets with Lily Tomlin.
Maybe positive reviews sold “Prada,” or it benefited from an awareness of Lauren Weisberger’s bitchy roman-a-clef. Hathaway and Grenier’s presence didn’t hurt any, that’s for sure.
My guess is that “Prada” was pre-sold in the television and trailer campaigns. A little bit of Streep went a very long way toward convincing potential viewers there were good laughs to be found here, just as there were in “Something’s Gotta Give” and “About Schmidt.” Maybe, too, New York looked too good to miss.
The mix of fresh and familiar faces – ingénues and established stars – all working at the top of their game in the service of a smart script can be a potent formula. Hollywood ought to try it more often. – G.D.

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