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Vexed in the City

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Revisiting Annie Hall the other evening, this critic was struck at how mature and well meaning the movie was. At the time of its release, it was heralded as a breakout work for its writer/director Woody Allen, and ushered in a change in the comedian’s cinematic style. Where once he favored outlandish farce, narratives loaded with sight gags, one liners, and silent era physical shtick, this new approach combined sly social commentary with a growing urban angst. He would soon be criticized for his overreliance on the psychological foibles of his characters, but Hall made it all seem so fresh, so inviting, so clearly contemporary and of the moment.
 
Allen’s Oscar winner was a critical constant banging at the back the brain while sitting through the otherwise appalling Sex and the City film the other evening. Surrounded by contest winners who were decked out in their Tampa interpretation of New York couture, and harangued by radio personnel making sure that every man in the screening felt uncomfortable, it was clear that this particular night at the cinema was reserved for the ladies. Now, there is nothing wrong with gearing a movie - or a film oriented event - around a single fanbase. Star Wars has been guilty of milking the ever-gullible geek long before mannequin Skywalker was in short pants.  But there is something unsettling about the whole Sex sect - and the proof parades itself proudly during this movie’s mindboggling two hour and thirty five minute running time.


Let’s not address the TV series here. A long running sitcom/comedy/cable show contains years worth of plot points and character development. Arguing that Carrie Bradshaw used to be ‘this’, or that Samantha Jones would never do ‘that’ is like pointing out that the Simpsons used to be more realistic back in the mid ‘80s. Nothing stays the same forever, and if it did, viewers would be decrying the lack of change. For the sake of this piece, let’s look at how the four main characters are portrayed in the film. As an additional part of this dissection, we will also look at the supporting players within their sphere of influence. By analyzing both sides of the interpersonal paradigm, by seeing the ‘who’ along with the ‘who cares’, we can see how bereft of entertainment this dynamic really is.


cover art

Sex and the City

Director: Michael Patrick King
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Chris Noth, David Eigenberg, Evan Handler, Jason Lewis, Jennifer Hudson

(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 30 May 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 30 May 2008 (General release); 2008)

Let’s start with Sex heroine Carrie Bradshaw, author, columnist, fashion plate, hopeless romantic, and absolute rotter. It’s not that she does things that are blatantly amoral - and she does - it’s that she bathes them in a sugary sweet coating of complete and utter shamelessness. At the beginning of the film, she makes cow eyes at ‘man’friend Mr. Big so that he’ll buy her a luxury Manhattan penthouse. Then, after getting her dream home, she pushes the brazen babe meter a single step further by demanding a new walk -in closet. Her man has just shelled out several mill to get her a pad she doesn’t need or deserve, and she requests remodeling. A little later on, during a particularly sour time in her life, she settles a problem by shopping. If materialism were a salve, Carrie would be Neo-friggin-sporin.


But this is only her outer evil. Inside, she’s a 40 year old emotional virgin. You’d think that someone who writes about the bedroom foibles of a complex urban demographic would understand a little something about the affairs of the heart. Instead, she’s the whiny Goth gal in Gucci heels, complaining that the world has gypped her once again. When her big narrative twist occurs, her reaction is so brattish that it requires a Super Nanny to bring her back to modern maturity. Such a savior comes in the guise of Jennifer Hudson’s “saint” Louise. As a personal assistant, she’s all webpages and day planners. As the typical person of color who teaches the Caucasian how to sync up with their soul, she’s pure Hollywood hokum.


So is Big. Limited to a small percentage of screen time - after all, your average Sex and the City fan isn’t interested in the problems of GUYS - we get companionship as a combination of carnal satisfaction and cash machine. Nothing is out of his price range, unless it’s understanding what women really want. His first hour faux pas which drives the next 85 minutes (yeesh) is not derived as much from fear as from fantasy. Like the Grimms roadmap this flawed fairytale takes, Big has to bungle something if only to make the resolution that’s much more mushy. Apparently, devotees of this half-assed Harlequin shite aren’t satisfied until they’re squirting out a few dozen Croc tears. So Big is the clichéd catalyst, the necessary Fabio to the film’s rom com cover artlessness.


As the broken record with an equal amount of irredeemablity, Miranda Hobbes is hopeless. All throughout this supposed grrl power struggle, her educated lawyer whines like a mofo. Every few minutes, she is pointing out her professional status to a seemingly uncaring clique. Carrie and the gals want to go out and drink. Miranda reminds them that she’s an attorney with a real job (guess that puts you in your place Miss Lady of Letters). Samantha suggests something a tad kinkier, and Ms. Hobbes is yanking out the business card. Even as her marriage is falling apart (in pure “it’s his fault” formulaics), she restates her career gal goals. It’s almost as if she is trying to convince herself that there’s an actual excuse for her pathetic party pooper status. Usually, there isn’t.


Of course, the Brooklyn-ese bartender she’s married to doesn’t make her any more sympathetic. He’s a weak little cuss, deciding that the best way to handle a little bedroom rejection is to find another sack to settle in. Naturally, he just adds fuel to Miranda’s misery. Leave it to a movie like Sex and the City to take two of its most formidable, linked to the real world women and turn them into characters out of something by a batty Barbara Carlton. The whole last hour of this overlong film focuses on how both Carrie and Miranda learn to forgive. Both need a whole lot of convincing, and it’s here where writer/director Michael Patrick King shows his true colors. Men love to think that females are the crueler, more spiteful members of the human race. It verifies their frequent self-imposed (and necessitated) feelings of inadequacy. Sex and the City gives these thoughts horrible haute complicity.


If there is a weak link in this loathsomeness, it’s Charlotte York. She’s more than happy to throw her erectile dysfunctional past behind her for the sake of a million bucks and a paid-for flat. Now, life is all about the adopted Asian baby and the happily emasculated husband. Whenever she’s onscreen, she’s like a harpy who finally found a guy who enjoyed her controlling harangues. Harry Goldenblatt is so non-macho his shaved head looks like a baby’s bottom, the spouse shorn of anything remotely resembling gender or power. It’s safe to say that Charlotte’s only contribution to this noxious narrative is a high pitched scream every time something supposedly shocking/sensational happens. The rest of the time, she’s Suzy Homemaker with a bigger bank account. 


Which leaves us, lastly, with saggy Samantha Jones. Here’s Sex‘s strangest dichotomy, an older gal who believes the best way to safeguard her self-esteem and self-import is to sleep around, a proud panther who preys on anything with a crotch and a credit card. In a post-feminist world where women argue for their inner goddess, she’s Medusa. Instead of treating her body like a temple, Samantha prefers a more tract house approach. Every time she spits out her pro-whore stance, you can literally see her friends doing an inner eye roll. It’s like listening to your grandmother defend her love of gansta rap. Not only is Miranda out of touch, she’s out of excuses. By the time an inevitable sequel rolls around, she’ll be working at one of the many Nevada ‘ranches’, defending her choice as “hers” to make.


The best way to understand this otherwise incomprehensible slag is to examine her five year relationship with hunky soap star Jerry “Smith” Jerrod. In the film, Samantha acts as his manager. She dotes on him while shuttling back and forth between the coasts. He is hopelessly devoted, and never even hints at straying or being unfaithful. He even coughs up $50K for a gaudy ring that Samantha wanted for herself. Yet every time our horndog heroine sees her lothario next door neighbor drilling the local talent, she’s awash in nookie nostalgia. Pining away for penis is one thing - everyone has urges. But Samantha is willing to throw away Mr. Right for Mr. Right Now. And her justification - she loves herself too much to compromise her feelings. Not too selfish, huh?


One of the main arguments made against Woody Allen’s New York stories, and something like Annie Hall specifically, is that his characters are all too self-absorbed and neurotic, masking their problems in clever quips and prosaic picture book patina. If that’s the case, Sex and the City is Narcissus with a standing reservation at the Blue Water Grill. Where the ‘70s classic combined its stereotypes with satire to break new ground in both areas, this post-millennial mess is just fake wish fulfillment funny business. When these gals undermine each other, it’s usually at a ‘yo momma’ level, and when they try to express themselves seriously, they’re like high school sophomores giving an oral book report. The hemming and hawing is horrific.


Clearly, a movie like this is going to do its job. It is merely required to preach to a congregation that already knows the sermon and can recite the responsorial by heart. The characters aren’t supposed to be realistic because, like, it’s all make-believe and pretend, right? Carrie Bradshaw and her pals are just idealized representations of what women think about when they get that elusive free moment to themselves, the visualization of their literal one chance to dream. So what if the end result is something reprehensible morally, romantically, socially, and aesthetically? A guy-based fantasy would barely make it past the looser than normal standards of the Internet’s porn community. This is just tit for tat, for tit.


Yet in Annie Hall, and later Manhattan, a true artist like Woody Allen found a way to make similar material sing. His heroine was also after her own sense of self, sleeping around toward part of it, selfishly rationalizing her way toward the rest. The men she met were also superfluous and subjective, props in a play that would eventually leave her alone, unsettled, but satisfied. There was no need for pie in the sky hyperbole - the real world offered its own delights - and the mindless purchasing of “things” never satiated a single broken heart or dream. Some might argue that this is nothing but personal progress, sisters doing it for themselves some thirty years later. If Sex and the City: The Movie represents the revolutionary, the hostilities are already over - and nobody won.


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