Trawling the Web for nuggets about whether Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour truly is the couture Nazi and horrid human being she’s made out to be in her former assistant Lauren Weisberger’s widely panned, widely read roman à clef, I ran across an article raving about the diva’s devotion to good works, among them AIDS-research funding and the foundation of a beauty school for the fashion-starved ladies of Afghanistan. Pretty cool — until you come to the pièce de résistance: Wintour’s post-9/11 spearheading of a public-relations campaign “to get people shopping again.”

You’d have to be pretty tightly sealed within the hermetic world of high fashion to offer praise like that with a straight face. But in the logic of the most energetically narcissistic industry this side of Hollywood, it makes perfect sense, as director David Frankel shows us in his engaging, if unexpectedly low-key, take (I went in expecting a romp) on Weisberger’s viperish screed about how she got sucked into a culture where she didn’t belong. A fashion-world insider-outsider himself (he has directed episodes of Sex and the City and currently helms the HBO hit Entourage), Frankel has cut, pasted and rejiggered the novel, mostly for the better. As adapted by Aline Brosh McKenna, The Devil Wears Prada is crisper, less self-righteous and mercifully shorter than its intermittently funny but interminable source. (You could safely read every 10th page of this exasperating novel and get the picture.) Freed from Weisberger’s grudge against the dolts who stubbornly refused to embrace her purported brainiac gifts, the movie is also more affectionate toward the women’s fashion magazine, and more respectful of its exacting standards. When I was hired in 1990 to write a movie column for the now-deceased Mirabella, I thought I’d be forced to write chipper prose for shopaholics. Instead, then-editor Amy Gross (now head girl at Oprah) told me not to give her any of that “women’s-magazine-writing crap,” but to write as I usually wrote for the alternative press. At Vogue, whose former luster she restored with zest and imagination, Wintour consistently shows good taste in writers — including our own John Powers, whom she has twice lured away to be the magazine’s film critic — if, that is, you can find their prose buried among the emaciated clotheshorses contorted into sadomasochistic angles on its glossy pages.

Meryl Streep’s wittily insidious turn as ice-cold Runway magazine editor Miranda Priestley may be modeled on Wintour — part Snow Queen, part Cruella de Vil, her performance leaves no doubt about the aptness of the nickname Nuclear Wintour favored by the British press — but it’s just as surely a composite of the hard-nosed British viragoes who run the American fashion-rag business, striking terror into the hearts of the overworked, underpaid minions whose jobs “a million girls would kill to have.” On the wrong side of 40, when many actresses are squatting in trees, Streep, whose dramatic performances tend toward the overwound and accent-heavy, has found her second wind as a comedian, and watching her nifty segue from the warmly blowzy country singer in A Prairie Home Companion to this silent but deadly dragon-lady is pure joy. Regal in exquisite designer attire and precision-cut silver hair, Miranda glides around her gleaming offices, distributing contempt or indifference with a basilisk stare or a drawn-out syllable. One sweep of those gimlet eyes over the unacceptably size-6 body of her new subassistant, “Andre-ah” (Anne Hathaway), whose cable-knit sweaters and sensible skirts were surely inspired by Camilla Parker Bowles, and we’re a puddle on the floor alongside the victim. A touch more sartorial abuse from Miranda’s two flacks — a wicked Stanley Tucci as the magazine’s gay art director, and an equally entertaining Emily Blunt (My Summer of Love) in several pounds of blue mascara and a scathing Sloane Ranger drawl as assistant No. 1 — and clueless Andrea (“Can you please spell Gabbana?”) is prepped for a makeover that runs way deeper than her Jimmy Choos.

Hathaway’s voluptuous beauty stands in ripe contrast to the streaked, starved twigs running around the Runway offices, and half the fun of the movie lies in watching Andrea morph into a sharp dresser and canny operator within the glam world she claims to disdain, even as her personal life (as superfluous to the movie as it is to her) falls apart in the wings. Hathaway’s a charming pratfaller, but notwithstanding her foray into nastiness as Jake Gyllenhaal’s social-climbing wife in Brokeback Mountain, she drags The Princess Diaries with her wherever she goes. Her Andrea’s no more than a nice girl in the wrong job — manipulable, but not fundamentally corrupt — which drains some of the unwitting vigor from the novel, whose author’s alter ego is only marginally less of a harpy than her boss.

For a while, the movie craftily improves on the book with added plotting that ups the ante on Miranda’s hard-bitten scheming and betrayal, while giving her her due as the workaholic perfectionist she has to be in order to survive in an increasingly cutthroat and corporate business. The scenes at the Paris shows, where you can amuse yourself spotting real-life fashion luminaries smirking among the extras and where Miranda pulls out all her Machiavellian stops with breathtaking finesse, are delicious. What a pity, then, that in the end, The Devil Wears Prada flabs out in all the usual ways, turning every major player into a softie and bestowing on the villain-in-chief a maternal streak that, however warped, strains all belief. Well, almost all: There’s got to be some encouraging malice left in a woman who would sic the likes of Lauren Weisberger onto The Village Voice. In the book she ends up where she belongs — freelancing for Seventeen, and something Conde-Nasty called The Buzz.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA | Directed by DAVID FRANKEL | Written by ALINE BROSH McKENNA, adapted from the novel by LAUREN WEISBERGER | Produced by WENDY FINERMAN | Released by Twentieth Century Fox | Citywide

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