Friday, May 30, 2008

"Sex and the City" -- * * *

No one would accuse me of being the world's biggest "Sex and the City" fan, so I can't quite offer the diehard's perspective on this four-years-later epilogue to the series; though I've seen every episode, I'm certainly not a member of the rabid base that was eagerly anticipating this film version. I thought the 1998-2004 HBO show was a consistently entertaining, amusing, fairly vacuous fantasy that never really made me howl with laughter or marvel at its emotional complexity, but it did what it set out to do well, and I usually enjoyed it. So, as a mild appreciator of the series, I was relatively satisfied and entertained by "Sex and the City," the movie, as it's basically an episode of the show, but longer. Truth be told, the film doesn't really justify its existence; we don't get a reason why this story needed to be told, nor does it really take huge advantage of its new cinematic form (though, to be fair, what possible limitations were left to break down?). It's just an excuse to see old friends again and revisit a show you may have missed these last four years. It's not an encapsulation of all that the series is or was, it's more of a bonus mini-season, which I expect will be enough to satiate fans' appetites.

For a show where plot was rarely important, a shocking amount of my friends have sworn to kill me if I dare "ruin" plot points from this movie, so I'll do my best to remain discreet and only reveal things that take place in the first 10-15 minutes. Clips from the show catch us up during the film's clever opening credits, and we're soon brought up to date on the goings-ons of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristen Davis) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall). Carrie and Mr. Big (Chris Noth) are still together, and he still looks like a suavely sexy amalgam of a falcon and Herman Munster; he proposes to Carrie almost immediately after the opening credits. Charlotte is still happily married to Harry (Evan Handler), taking care of their adopted Asian 4-year-old daughter who has a tendency to repeat everything she hears; Charlotte shrieks no less than three times in the first 15 minutes. Miranda still lives in Brooklyn with Steve (David Eigenberg) and their son Brady, and since she's Miranda, you know something is going to happen to destroy her happiness; factor in her telling Steve to "just get it over with" during sex, and you're well on your way to figuring out what. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is, in a clever way of keeping Cattrall away from the other actresses as much as possible, living in Los Angeles with her actor boyfriend Smith (Jason Lewis); in a nice bit of Time-Warner synergy, their apartment is plastered with Smith-bedecked Entertainment Weekly covers. Oh, and she has a hot neighbor living next door, screwing all the women in town. There, I managed to avoid spoilers. See below if you want to know the shocking events of "Sex and the City's" second act:


Miranda doesn't wax her bush!
Charlotte shits her pants!
Carrie dyes her hair to become a brunette!
Samantha leers suggestively at attractive men!


The men, heterosexual and homosexual alike, are virtual non-entities. While I had a feeling they'd understandably get put on the back burner, there's an entire 45-minute-long chunk in the middle of the movie where neither Big, Harry, Steve nor Smith appear for even one moment. Harry, arguably the most interesting of the four gets the least to say or do of all; I can count his lines of dialogue on one hand. Similarly, the two token gays, Anthony (Mario Cantone) and Stanford (Willie Garson) get the short shrift; Cantone gets a few moments to shriek, but Garson is given, I believe, two sentences to utter in the entire film. For all the relationship drama on display, this is really a movie about the four women's friendship, not sex or relationships. Without spilling the beans, they're all given a mood to play throughout and a consistently-themed storyline/arc to go through; Miranda, still my favorite of the bunch, has a fairly moody one, and like the character, it feels the most real/recognizable of the four. Carrie's is sadsies, as well, and while Charlotte's is a happy one, Davis is given astonishingly little to do here. Charlotte shows up to beam once in a while and largely disappears. As usual, Samantha has virtually no substance, and her whole arc is literally about her staring hornily at her "sex on a stick" hunk neighbor. Needless to say, by the time the credits roll, all four are smiling and happy with themselves and each other.

The four actresses are damned good at embodying these characters by this point, and don't ever appear to be going through the motions, even if they are. At doing what Charlotte does (smiling and being appalled) and what Samantha does (being naked, and saying profane things in public), Davis and Cattrall do just fine, but neither requires much stretching of acting muscles. Nixon and Parker are asked to carry most of the emotional load here, and it's easy to see that they're the more talented half of the foursome. Nixon, as usual, makes decent material pop more than it would seem capable of; she gets a really good moment when confronting Steve outside of Carrie's engagement party that could have been too much, but isn't, thanks to her. SJP acts up a storm, and plumbs the depths of Carrie's emotions more than the show ever allowed. There are moments here that give "Sex and the City" something vaguely resembling depth, and they almost all involve her. And for what it's worth, Parker, Nixon and Davis all do a really good job of acting like they tolerate Cattrall.

One of the first things I heard post-screening from fans of the show was that the movie was more dramatic than it was comedic, and they're right. There are less laughs here than fans may be expecting (though still enough to label this a comedy) and the proceedings are more dramatic than we're used to, but the show was never hilarious, so it wasn't a huge deal to me. As I see it, the seasons all had their own little arcs and themes and tones, and since this is essentially its own season, I was fine with it, and it still felt like "Sex and the City" to me. Maybe the girls will have more chance for fun and playing around and laughing in the sequel, but for now, this'll do, and it serves as a better series finale than what we got the first time around. But aside from the tone, the one thing sticking out making this "different" than the show is the presence of Jennifer Hudson as Carrie's slave, doting assistant Louise from St. Louis (if you miss the "Saint Louise" allusion initially, don't worry, the movie will point it out for you a half dozen more times). Though not sticking out as an emphatic misstep, Louise's presence here is largely worthless, even if it is cute that "Sex and the City" is finally trying to acknowledge that New York City has black people in it.

The show's two chief indulgences were always fashion and sex, and disappointingly, the movie is a bit heavier on the former. While the labels 'comedy,' 'drama' and 'romance' apply, the film could also easily be labeled 'shoe/bag/dress porn;' it's as if the script was written to try to accommodate every fashion designer who wanted to have their dresses featured in the movie. It's hard to believe these women have enough time to worry about their relationships when they're so busy orgasming over expensive shoes and handbags, and there's at least a half a dozen extended fashion show sequences (which are fun, even if they crop up out of nowhere). By the time the film's Fashion Week fashion show centerpiece rolls around, it just feels like yet another clothes display than anything special. But where fashion-oglers get their fill, hornier audience members will find the amount of sexuality fairly light. Sure, we get some stray boobs, male asses, and the occasional shot thrusting, but this is a movie that cried out for unadulterated fucking and full-frontal shots. We get one poignant, quick, explicit encounter near the end and a glimpse of about one-third of a penis for half a second at the two hour mark, and it's just not enough to satiate this target audience's desire for equal-opportunity male objectification. It's worth noting that "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" used its prominently-displayed penis shots to far greater effect.

Writer/director/exec-producer Michael Patrick King is best regarded for the first of those three titles, and justifiably so; The bitchy one-liners and frank discussions were the show's strong points, and his writing seems to have matured along with the characters. Though a moment involving a character shitting their pants, and a running joke of a dog humping a stuffed animal may have you thinking Adam Sandler has temporarily hijacked the "Sex and the City" movie, King makes up for it by peppering the screenplay with witty observations, broadly funny moments, and clever meditations on NYC living and aging/maturation. There are no great sequences that everyone will be buzzing about ("She's fashion roadkill!"), but Carrie's assessment that -- I'm paraphrasing -- "your twenties are for having fun, your thirties are for learning your lessons, and your forties are to pay for the drinks" and Samantha exhaustingly tossing away a copy of "The Secret" ring true, and will resonate with much of the movie/show's core audience. Also, native New Yorkers will recognize the movie's little acknowledgments of the frustration of being dealt a 347 area code when there's no 917's left, the recent ever-presence of the iPhone and the warming comfort of the Big Apple's more insane liberal protesters (upon having her fur coat splattered with red paint, Samantha smiles and utters, "I love New York").

Much pre-release discussion about the film has revolved around its super duper running time, and early reviews declaring it too long (at least two attendees in my group agreed with that consensus). Now, maybe it's just because I'm used to watching a bunch of episodes at a time on DVD, but the film's 2 hour 15 minute running time wasn't that daunting to me. I won't lie, it doesn't fly by -- it feels like its 2 hours and 15 minutes -- but it's paced fairly well and I was never bored by it.The wedding you've all seen in the trailer comes at around the 45 minute mark, and the trip the ladies take to Mexico that lasts 15 minutes (one-ninth of the running time) may be a distant memory by the time the credits roll, but hey, it's more movie for your buck. Frankly, if a show that I loved was being turned into a movie after being off the air for four years, I'd want it to be as long as possible. So while it may be too much "Sex and the City" in one sitting for some fans, I suspect only for very few of them.

For the newbies: if you've not seen "Sex and the City" and are going to the movie just to see what all the fuss is about, you will not like it. Out of the half dozen virgin viewers I've spoken to, only one of them seemed to enjoy the movie (the others found it bland and/or torturous), and that's not a very good percentage. It's not really a stand-alone movie, and as I assess its virtues/problems, I guess that should bother me more, but it doesn't. This is an experience strictly for those that consider themselves fans of the show and enjoy vicariously living through four wealthy, attractive Upper East Side ladies in their mid-40s. As such, this is easily the biggest event movie for gays and women since "The Devil Wears Prada" and I'm sure it'll make a hefty bundle. Serving as an estrogen-filled counterpart to last week's "Indiana Jones," and relying just as much on nostalgia, it's a movie practically tailor-made for cosmopolitan-fueled girls night outs. And no matter how impervious you think you are to it, it's difficult not smiling the first time seeing these four together again.


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