The devil doesn't sprout horns or bare her fangs in The September Issue: She doesn't even wear that much Prada (she likes her Chanel, though). In director R.J. Cutler's brisk and snappy documentary about the making of the September 2007 issue of Vogue - the fattest ever published, clocking in at more than 800 pages back when people still bought magazines - editor Anna Wintour exhibits an icy, unflappable veneer.
If something were to make Wintour angry, she'd just vaporize it with laser beams shot from her eyes. At least that is the impression left by Cutler's film, which never digs too deeply into the psyche of fashion's fascinating goddess. The film also leaves you with a newfound respect for The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep and the set designers got everything so right that The September Issue incites startling moments of déjà vu.
When Wintour says "Just because you wear something from Kmart doesn't mean you're a dumb person," she's trying to be warm and compassionate. We learn that Wintour's father was the product of a strict Victorian upbringing ("I'm not sure his mother ever spoke to him"), which explains a little about her. And there is a glimmer of warmth in her dealings with her daughter, who ridicules the whole fashion industry and wants to go to law school instead ("We'll see," Wintour says ominously), and with Thakoon Panichgul, a young designer whose career she helps launch.
Mostly, though, Wintour remains an enigma: When she looks off to the side and rolls her tongue when someone dares disagree with her, you can't tell whether she's annoyed or has just lost interest. For personality, The September Issue relies on Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, a colorful whirlwind who plays tennis with a Louis Vuitton towel fashionably draped around his shoulders, and, particularly, on Grace Coddington, the magazine's creative director.
A former Vogue model who joined the staff after a car accident, Coddington becomes the movie's real star - a passionate, endlessly creative woman who labors over the most minute detail of the magazine's photographs and layouts only to have her work overruled by Wintour's whims and tastes. The constant tug of war between the women gives The September Issue its drama and narrative spine. The movie also celebrates the considerable creativity that goes into each issue. But as for getting close to Wintour - or even explaining the unfathomable mystery that can be haute couture - the film comes up empty. Some things are just not meant for us puny mortals to comprehend.
The September Issue opens in South Florida on Friday, Sept. 11.