Four years on, the 'City' girls are still in vogue
For a year, I've been convinced that if I wanted to win certain women's hearts all I had to do was pop the question: "Will you see 'Sex and the City' with me?" Frequently, one of these women will stop me just to ask: "Have you seen it?" - always with a look of ecstasy and desperation on her face. They need their fix of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha. Many of these entertainment-deprived women are planning wild nights on the town - as foursomes, obviously. There's a touching irony to it all. They're going to the movies to watch TV.
The HBO series, which ran from 1998 to 2004, is at the megaplex now, and at 2 hours and 15 minutes, it's like going to somebody else's house to binge on a stack of new episodes surrounded by a bunch of girlfriends you don't know. Written and directed by the show's co-creator Michael Patrick King, the movie is just like a half-season of the series - a funny, sappy, clumsy, crude, rambunctious, argumentative, gleefully vulgar attempt to balance the fantasy of romance with the reality that the fantasy is impossible.
It's full of bad puns, some good quotable jokes, and filmmaking that's often only a notch above "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay." The film is set four years after the show ended, and King hasn't taken any real artistic leaps forward. Too often the movie feels like a prolonged episode, with the complexity the series offered merely simplified. To King's credit, he hasn't completely succumbed to self-congratulatory camp, either.
The series' strength was never visual or structural. It was emotional and observational. At its very best, "Sex and the City" was the closest any work of popular culture has come to capturing the social vicissitudes in Edith Wharton's fiction. The writing may not have been as good, but the class and gender perceptions, relationship critiques, and real sense of life in New York City felt like pure Wharton. The tangle of wishfulness and practicality in the author's heroines found natural 21st century extensions in the 30-something women (plus the older Samantha) that King, the series' creator, Darren Star, and a handful of perceptive writers kept at the vanguard of Manhattan social life.
Not even in 135 minutes can King do that - for one thing, Manhattan, the show's fifth heroine, never truly comes to life. But the movie has its moments. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), the show's chic centerpiece, dating columnist and shoe fanatic, is considering marriage to Mr. Big (Chris Noth), the man who for a decade has been both the love of her life and a romantic albatross. The series ended with him declaring his undying love in Paris. Now they may tie the knot - but for practical reasons. He wants to buy them a penthouse, but Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), ever the lawyer, instructs Carrie not to sell her current place without some kind of equity in the new one. Marriage would seem to solve that problem.
But what begins as a simple, quiet ceremony snowballs into an event. The news winds up on Page Six in the New York Post, and Carrie's editor at Vogue (Candice Bergen) wants to turn the nuptials into a story about "the last single woman." (Where? In the universe?) The impending wedding gives virtuous Charlotte (Kristin Davis), the character who most scrupulously believes in fairy tales, something to help plan, and it momentarily freaks out Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the former bed-faring adventurer who's moved to Los Angeles with her movie-star boyfriend (Jason Lewis) but comes back to New York as if the trip were as simple as hopping in a cab.
The wedding only occupies the film's first hour. What time remains requires the women to do a lot of soul-searching and slapstick. I could have lived without Samantha's pillow-humping purse dog. But Cattrall herself is still a carnal wonder and as verbally sharp as ever. Davis is very funny waddling around in a tight dress and a tighter scatological jam. And Parker is every bit the romantic-comedy princess the show made of her, although I truly miss her throwaway dips into ghetto-fabulous diction and vocabulary. (In some episodes Carrie could have passed for the token black friend. Now it's an uncomfortable-looking Jennifer Hudson, who plays Carrie's stylish personal assistant.)
Nixon has the hardest job. I've always admired her willingness to be the bearer of ugly truths. Here she has to find some way to inhabit Miranda's severity without letting the character succumb completely to bitterness. And for the most part, she does.
Of course "Sex and the City" features lots of changes of clothing; Parker wears five different outfits before the opening credits have even finished. Sometimes the conspicuous consumption and chronic fabulousness is absurd. The girls help Carrie pack her apartment in dresses and heels; even in the series, somebody owned a pair of jeans.
The film may be compensating for the woeful lack of glamour coming from Hollywood movies, where women as I know them are an endangered species. As Carrie and company evolved in the series into real, emotionally rich characters, a lot of women saw beyond the $1,000 dresses and $600 shoes, and glimpsed themselves. That's not an identification the movies are able - make that, willing - to produce terribly often.
Yet while "Sex and the City" fills a void in that respect, it's a void the series itself helped to create. The show brought serious romantic comedy (and sometimes drama) to television at a time when it was stagnating on the big screen. Consequently, the movies had a hard time competing with the vast emotional universe an ongoing series could convey, opening a way for the television writer-producer Judd Apatow to repopulate the genre, in movie theaters, with amusingly needy heterosexual men. The boyfriends and husbands are made to seem just as pathetic in the "Sex and the City" movie, which makes the emotional entanglements and disentanglements look easier on screen than they did on TV. The men never put up a fight over anything, and the movie puts fantasy ahead of reality. For the moment, King has restored women to their rightful place in a genre that is nothing without them. But, sadly, that genre isn't romantic comedy. It's the chick flick.