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MOVIE REVIEW

And you thought your boss was bad

'Devil' takes a fine measure of today's workplace ambitions

As you might recall, Lauren Weisberger transformed her stint toiling for the imperious Vogue editor Anna Wintour into a piece of chick lit called ``The Devil Wears Prada," in which a recent grad took an assistant's job at a major New York fashion magazine. Andy Sachs, Weisberger's alter ego, cared not a whit for fashion. For her, the job was a steppingstone to the loftier editorial climes of The New Yorker. The brisk, bumbling, name - dropping nature of Weisberger's prose suggested a heroine who only said she had read The New Yorker. But who cares?

The book was a hit, and Hollywood called. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the megaplex. The movie holds on to a lot of Weisberger's frills (couture, bitchery, gossip!) but rebukes her opportunistic shallowness. ``The Devil Wears Prada" now has a brain and a point to make. This adaptation is about two women of different generations at philosophical odds over careerism. Meryl Streep plays the older woman, Miranda Priestly, and Anne Hathaway plays Andy. And while the picture isn't brilliant, it is, at its most entertaining, a kicky, surprisingly astute throwback to bygone Hollywood social comedies.

Miranda is the legendary editor in chief of Runway, whose glossy pages have featured Halston dresses and literary geniuses. Her whims are frequent, her needs many. Meeting them calls for two assistants. One spot is vacant. To the horror of her current assistant, a divinely tart Brit named Emily (Emily Blunt), Andy shows up to fill it. Her hair is frizzed. Her outfit appears to be from Express. And she has no idea who Miranda Priestly is. In other words, she's probably the average American woman.

But Andy was the editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern, her college newspaper, and has designs on a serious career in journalism. She offers Miranda a good speech about being a hard worker and fast learner, and soon she's sitting outside the boss's office, across from Emily, obeying whatever ridiculous command either of them gives her.

The to-do lists are, indeed, preposterous. Procure lunchtime Smith & Wollensky steak. Find pilot crazy enough to fly Miranda back to Manhattan during hurricane. Track down unpublished Harry Potter manuscript for her twins. To underscore the inanity, the movie offers a hilarious montage in which Miranda dumps her coat and bag on Andy's desk about 15 times. Each dump comes with a nutty demand disguised as a question (``Where's that piece of paper I had in my hand yesterday?").

The screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, has renovated most of the book, and the movie is still as busy as Andy is overworked. Andy now lives with her supportive sous-chef boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) and is being wooed by a connected writer (Simon Baker) with possibly frosted eyebrows and a creepy knack for showing up at the opening of anything. Her best friend (Tracie Thoms) righteously and gratuitously disapproves of the romantic entanglements.

At work, when she's not fetching coffee or dogs or skirts, she's absorbing the sting of Miranda's and Emily's putdowns, mostly about her weight. (These humiliations must be a joke since Hathaway is the skinniest person in the movie.) Andy must also tolerate more barbs from Nigel (Stanley Tucci), a Runway senior editor who calls her by dress size (``Wake up, Six!") but winds up whipping her into style. Wearing big, round glasses and getups that could double as screensavers, Tucci brings a debonair human touch to his unkind fashion queen. He and Blunt are very good at walking the tightrope between tangy hauteur and downright nastiness.

Streep's approach is similar, if more bone-dry. I was worried -- or was I excited? -- that she would see a thinly conceived, ostensibly heartless character as an opportunity to ham her heart out. But this is neither her ``Scarface" nor her ``Mommie Dearest." Despite that ash-gray Cruella De Vil haircut, Miranda is more than a cartoon. Streep delivers her monologues and dismissals with light, regal exasperation. Imagine Catherine Deneuve in English.

Playing the part under the top, as it were, yields a more imaginative comic creation. Miranda doesn't bark, which leaves you afraid that she actually will bite. The woman is a diva and a child. But as ``The Devil Wears Prada" carefully explains, she is also a first-class businesswoman with the political acumen of Elizabeth I.

Like the rest of the country, Hollywood has never been entirely sure what to make of powerful women in the workplace. In the movies, all the female bosses seemed to have been written with the Faye Dunaway character in ``Network" in mind, women positively orgasmic with ambition. (See Demi Moore in ``Disclosure.") It would follow that a movie about two talented, determined women -- one established, the other ascendant -- would be a tale of comeuppance, which, in a sense, is what Weisberger had in mind for Wintour by publishing her book.

But the film is more judicious. Brosh McKenna and the director, David Frankel, who's made several effervescent ``Sex and the City" episodes, don't pit Miranda and Andy against each other. (They don't truly pit Andy against Emily either.) This is a movie with some of the classic social texture of 1950's ``All About Eve" (even the drudgery seems glamorous) or the urbanity of 1988's ``Working Girl," with little of either's conniving.

In her own withering way, Miranda teaches Andy that fashion is not a hobby, not for her, her employees, or many of her readers. (Streep gives a fantastic aria about the history of a sweater.) She also gives her a front-row glimpse of the chess-move savvy required for a middle-age woman to survive at the top of any industry. That crest of gray hair seems like a triumphant measure of longevity.

Andy, in turn, shows Miranda that she's worthy of her respect. Hathaway, meanwhile, is worthy of ours. Anybody who caught her quick, early scenes as a rodeo princess in ``Brokeback Mountain" knows of her disarming sweetness. (That wink she gave Jake Gyllenhaal would have made Dale Evans quit show business.) Here she's not competing with Streep; instead she's using those polka-dot eyes to carve out a blithe space for herself.

When watching Hathaway , the tendency might be to think about Julia Roberts, but that occurred to me only while watching her gallop through the streets of Paris and Manhattan in ball gowns and stilt-like heels. In a few of the outfits (a head-to-toe Chanel number comes to mind), she looks like one of those paper dolls that you dress by folding tabs around the body. Far from being a mannequin, Hathaway wears these clothes with a cross-purpose that suits her character's seriousness about work. They may be high fashion. But they also make snazzy uniforms.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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