Sex and the City: The Movie

2008-05-30 (General release)

Sex and the City on the big screen spins exactly the same fantasy it conjured on TV. No one is ever worried about money. Men are the ultimate consumer good, but labeled so poorly it’s hard at first sight (or even first sex) to distinguish the JC Penney from the Yves St. Laurent. This season’s couture, drinks, and four-inch heels can reconcile a woman to any loss or any pain. But even when the series most blatantly traded Manhattan real estate for Harlequin territory, niggles of mortality and self-doubt sneaked to the surface, as the quartet of friends faced being both passé and passed over.

Not any more. Writer Michael Patrick King and Sarah Jessica Parker, the prime mover in the film’s genesis, wring yet more angst out of the wrong-time, wrong-place romance of Parker’s Carrie and Mr. Big (Chris Noth). As they were blissfully, if unbelievably, reunited at the end of the TV series, the only tension in the movie spirals around an entirely clichéd will-they-or-won’t-they wedding, the staple of primetime TV shows desperate for a season-ender. None of this is helped by the film’s plodding direction, indulgent cutting, and affection for tweeny pop sounds.

Initially, the movie gestures toward resonant dilemmas. What is the next step, or should there be a next step, for happy cohabitees like Carrie and Big? Why do some women, like Samantha (Kim Cattrall) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), worry whether a relationship is the most fulfilling way to live? But such questions are immediately reduced to stereotype. If Samantha is waiting at home for a man, she must be a self-obsessed sexual polymath. If Miranda is frustrated by being major breadwinner of her household, she must be a shrewish, uptight monster, even in the eyes of her devoted friends. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) only floats through most of the movie as naïve, uptown Madonna, and so flimsy is the role of Carrie’s assistant, Louise (a mostly bemused-looking Jennifer Hudson), that it might have been rewritten for Miranda or Samantha.

Amid the cut-outs, occasional satire or perhaps even character twists emerge, briefly. When an out-of-control Carrie thrashes Big with a wedding bouquet, Noth shows some of the edge that animates his appearances in Law & Order. Charlotte, in the only scene where she stops channeling Olivia de Havilland in Gone with the Wind, defends Carrie from all predators. A reptilian Vogue editor (Candice Bergen), assembling the glossy’s annual “age issue,” persuades Carrie to humiliate herself as “the last single girl in New York” in exchange for a multi-page spread in high-end bridal gowns. And in a scene worthy of Peter Greenaway (one of the movie’s few elegant images), Samantha turns herself into a living Valentine’s day card, reclining naked on a table wearing only handmade sushi, while Big proposes a second time by slipping a spangle-decked blue silk Manolo onto her foot. But such moments are sunk by prolonged Farley-style set-pieces about pubic hair, dogs in heat, and the intestinal ravages of travel outside the United States.

As she must decide between marriage to a lover and the performance of a wedding to the world, Carrie seems to grow ever more bedazzled and immature at every step. Of course, the wedding dress she falls for is a gift from Vivienne Westwood, and the bijou location she chooses for the ceremony is the New York Public Library, and the 200 friends she invites are the crème de la crème of early-middle-aged glitterati. Nevertheless, the movie suggests that even a highly intelligent woman, whose book advances apparently support both an interior decorator and a personal assistant, turns into insensitive tabloid mush at the hint of a vow. As the remainder of the movie involves her learning that she can’t have everything that she wants, and that she should be grateful for what she has, the theme of most stories involving women since Genesis, the movie becomes somewhat penitential to watch.

In fact, the movie bares the didactic, Candide-like saga of the education of Carrie Bradshaw at the heart of Sex and the City, in which hubris has to be disciplined and brought low by experience. This moralizing was mitigated on TV by the multiple storylines of triumph as well as tribulation interwoven through each season’s major theme. But in the limited space of a movie, even a movie as long as this once, only a skilful writer and director can inject such liberating nuance. King is not that director.

His movie seems an excuse to linger, either over Parker as art object or scenes that require swift cutting and elliptical dialogue, such as the four friends’ chatter in restaurants and on beaches. For a movie ostensibly devoted to sensuality, the intimate scenes are clinically voyeuristic, as if animated from the pages of adult magazines. Only the street scenes, and those of Carrie and her friends at the New York Public Library, where the actors move within the frame, suggested the latent energy that might have kept the experiences of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda alive.

There’s more than a hint of disinterment about this movie, as if everyone involved were reinhabiting old skins and discarded personalities, and unable to shake the lassitude of the grave. It’s hard not to see it as a cynical attempt to exploit the loyalties of fans, and it casts a retrospective pall over the entire TV series. Its burial was decent, under the stars in Paris. If only it had been left there.

RATING 5 / 10
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