Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"Sex" and Familiarity: The Romance is Gone, but the Friendship Remains


directed by Michael Patrick King
starring the old gang - Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, all the boy toys - plus Jennifer Hudson

News flash: Movies targeted at adult women can be HUGELY profitable! Stop the presses! (Does that phrase even mean anything anymore?)

The fact that “Sex and the City” had an enormous opening weekend, and the high probability that it will continue to show legs at the box office, should come as a surprise to exactly no one. And yet the dissection of why, how, and what it means has already begun. What it means, folks, is that women, like men, will pay to see movies that speak to their personal experiences, desires, frustrations, and, yes, fantasies. And what it further means, sadly, is that there aren’t that many movies out there that fill that need for women.

Which is why I’m mostly rooting for “SATC”’s success even though it isn’t a particularly good movie. I liked the show a lot, but as a matter of principle I’m skeptical of any efforts to transfer a television series to the big screen. A series is just that: it’s serial, giving the audience time to become acquainted with—and invested in—the characters and their arcs of growth and interaction with one another. And while some series also build a larger narrative arc over the course of a season or several, others (especially comedies) are structured around the themes of each stand-alone episode. The longer-term development is of character dynamics, not plot. This structure is difficult to adapt to the format of the two-hour movie, and the strain shows in “Sex.” While it follows something resembling a big-P Plot (two and a half plots, really) and runs almost 2 1/2 hrs long, it relies heavily on preexisting goodwill towards its four protagonists and too often ends up feeling caught between the comic rhythms of the show and the larger-scale dramatic demands of the screenplay—without capturing the essence of either.

That’s not to say it’s not watchable—it is, and will go down as easily as a well-mixed cosmopolitan with most fans of the show. Even after the intervening years of swirling rumors, soured negotiations, and expectations raised, dashed, and revived, the reunited fab four successfully recreate their old chemistry, armed with enough cocktails and couture to satiate even the most “Sex”-starved viewer. The film picks up some years after the events of the series finale, with Carrie (Parker) and true love “Mr. Big” (Chris Noth) happy together but not yet married; Miranda (Nixon) and Steve (David Eigenberg) married but no longer happy together, mainly due to a lack of sex (New York law firm hours and raising a kid’ll do that to you); Charlotte (Davis) and Harry (Evan Handler) happily married and raising an adorable adopted daughter; and Samantha (Cattrall) happily bedding and managing actor-lover Smith Jerrod (Jason Lewis) but not so happily chafing against the confinements of monogamy in L.A. Without giving away the plot, suffice to say that in their search for lasting love the quartet confronts and survives betrayals, estrangements, temptations, and disappointments, all thanks to the healing salve of their friendship. Just like an episode of the old show—only not quite.

Something’s just a little off. It’s not that there’s an undertone of greater seriousness, even melancholy, to the movie than was ever present in the show. That’s an inevitable (and not unwelcome) reflection of the foursome’s shift from hopeful thirtysomething singletons to battle-tested fortysomethings trying to maintain committed relationships. The problem is that the changed tone isn’t accompanied by convincing character development or self-discovery. All of the characters’ soul-searching feels perfunctory and unsatisfactorily resolved, and in at least two cases the resolutions rest on underexplored assumptions about whether the women are to some degree responsible for the less-than-exemplary behavior of their men. And one of the four gals never goes through any self-examination at all, though she also unexpectedly ends up being the most enjoyable character in the movie. Still, I’d have preferred more time and angst with her in place of the total waste of Jennifer Hudson as Carrie’s assistant, whose underwritten character comes perilously close to Magic Negro territory—or would, if she weren’t so completely superfluous.

These flaws could be more easily overlooked if the movie retained more of the show’s playful wit. While it was the core friendships that gave "SATC" its heart, what made it entertaining was its sharply satirical eye for the rituals of urban dating and mating, as well as the passing trends and fixations of Manhattan’s smart set in all their ephemeral silliness. Alas, too little of that sly social observation makes its way into the movie. It’s telling that the only jokes I remember are the kind the Farrelly sisters would make if the Farrellys had sisters, involving pubic hair, bodily functions, and a randy dog. Oh, and one absolutely priceless line, pricelessly delivered by Charlotte to Big at a critical moment. But apart from that, there’s really not much to laugh at, and that’s a real loss. The fans may not notice, if they’re sufficiently dazzled by the montage of gorgeous designer bridal gowns Carrie tries on—or sufficiently distressed by the pain one of the characters suffers after a particularly heartrending breakup. But the uninitiated will, and are unlikely to see anything in “SATC” that will win them over or reveal the value of films centered on women older than 35. It’s a pity, really, given that the lack of quality product in that category is only going to focus more attention on this one movie than it merits. A good movie made for mature women isn’t an oxymoron. If you build it, they will come.



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