Friday, May 30, 2008

Sex and the City: Cash and Carrie

Sex and the City (2008) • View trailer for Sex and the City
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, vulgarity, nudity and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.30.08
Buy DVD: Sex and the City • Buy Blu-Ray: Sex and the City: The Movie [Blu-ray]

Samantha no doubt would disagree, but I’m afraid there is such a thing as too much Sex.

Although longtime executive producer and Sex and the City series writer Michael Patrick King both wrote and directed this big-screen continuation of the hit HBO comedy/drama — and while I’ve no doubt this film will be the bee’s knees for legions of adoring fans — the long-awaited result is self-indulgent and somewhat irritating.
When Samantha (Kim Cattrall, far left) attends an auction with the intention of
purchasing one particular piece, she and her longtime gal pals — from left,
Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin
Davis) — are dismayed to see another person bidding quite aggressively for
the same item.

Self-indulgent because, at a thumping 145 minutes, this film is almost half a season’s worth of the half-hour TV episodes.

Somewhat irritating because, having left everybody — the show’s characters and us fans — in a happy place when the series rode off into the New York City sunset in February 2004, King rains on everybody’s parade by screwing up key relationships.

Yep, Carrie and Big are on the outs. Again.

And so are Miranda and Steve.

And so are Samantha and Smith.


The always witty and hilariously smutty dialogue aside, one expects better than tired, predictable melodrama from a franchise with such a smart pedigree. This movie feels driven more by studio greed than a need for further explore these characters.

I recall being similarly annoyed (on a much more superficial level) when, having brought Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson into each other’s loving arms at the conclusion of Spider-Man 2, that series’ producers decided the only way they could obtain dramatic tension for the third film was to rip them apart again.

This is the tried-and-true tactic of afternoon soap operas, where plot developments emerge less from the logic of established characters and their distinctive behavior, and more because some idiot decides to throw a spanner into the gears.

While it’s genuinely delightful to see Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) once again strutting their Manhattan streets in search of labels, by rights — and by six seasons, and 94 episodes of the series — they should have gotten the other “L” (love) worked out by now.

Indeed, they did get it worked out. We saw it happen back in early 2004, when Carrie abandoned her ill-advised Parisian fantasy and allowed Big (Chris Noth) to sweep her back into his arms.

And when Miranda finally came to terms with her admittedly unusual but still emotionally satisfying relationship with Steve (David Eigenberg).

And particularly when Samantha came to terms with her cancer, and the debilitating effects of chemo, and watched in amazement as Smith (Jason Lewis) not only stood by her, but delivered quite possibly the most swooningly romantic “bouquet” in the history of such gestures.

Charlotte, for her part, had found true happiness a bit sooner than her friends, in the devoted arms of Harry (Evan Handler), her amazingly sweet and satisfying husband.

I get the problem. Back when the series began in June 1998, all the gals were single and trying to navigate the New York dating pool; their relationship misfires fueled both Carrie’s ongoing column and subsequent first book, not to mention several dozen truly memorable TV episodes.

But good characters must mature if they’re not to stagnate, and logic eventually dictated more permanent attachments ... which, alas, aren’t nearly as interesting, plot wise, as trying to choose between two hot guys.

Which brings us to the present day, and King’s decision to basically start fresh, or at least borrow from the previous pages of this ongoing melodrama.

In a way, this could be shrewd marketing. Those who approach this film cold, without benefit of those 94 TV episodes, will have no preconceived notions: no reason to be annoyed when Carrie and Big self-destruct. For newcomers, it’ll seem like the first time ... even if Carrie’s reaction to Big’s behavior seems, ah, overly shrill and hysterical.

Newcomers similarly won’t have expectations about Steve’s behavior, which (in my humble male opinion) seems grotesquely out of character; or know anything about Smith’s long and faithful position at Samantha’s side. Samantha’s latent promiscuity — and Cattrall still puts the flirty in 50, as her character approaches that age — once again comes front and center (thanks in great part to a well-endowed and sexually insatiable neighbor).

Newbies can just concentrate on all the elements that made Sex and the City so entertaining in the first place: the deliriously gorgeous outfits and shoes, worn to perfection by each of the four gals (we haven’t been so indulged by a costume designer — Patricia Field, who also defined fashion for the series — since The Devil Wears Prada); the delights of Manhattan living as experienced by characters who have more money than God; and most particularly the deliciously snarky, smutty “girl talk” that became such a series hallmark.

All these elements also will appeal to veteran fans, but I can’t help feeling the narrative whole is less than the sum of its individually delightful parts.

King’s smartest move is the introduction of a new character: the young and inexperienced “Louise from St. Louis” (Dreamgirls sensation Jennifer Hudson), who accepts a position as Carrie’s assistant after our heroine is forced to put her life back together. Hudson brings fresh, feisty and fearless charm to this film: all badly needed qualities.

And Louise’s gimmick — her method of “renting” those desperately coveted labels — is both ingenious and endearing.

Unfortunately, Hudson isn’t in nearly enough of the movie, which instead devotes what feels like an awful lot of time to watching Carrie and Miranda mope. In a word, too much of this film is a downer. I’d happily excise half an hour of such doldrums in exchange for a two-hour product that displays more sparkle.

Thank goodness, then, for Davis’ Charlotte, who — along with Hudson’s Louise — is this story’s other ray of sunshine. Watching the initially more conservative Charlotte cope with and adapt to her more vulgar friends always has been a comedic delight, in great part because Davis handles her character’s aggrieved righteous indignation with such precision: a perfect blend of mortification, occasional flashes of anger and (because she can’t help it) curiosity.

For his part, Noth continues to have the best eyebrows in the business, not to mention a killer half-smile to go with Big’s guarded wariness whenever he’s uncertain of the ground on which he’s standing. He’s a flawed by essentially decent guy; that’s why we always knew, no matter what else happened, that Carrie would return to his arms sooner or later.

Big also is, ah, big on flamboyant romantic gestures; wait till you see the closet he builds for Carrie in this film’s first act. That, boys and girls, is the act of the man truly in love ... which makes Carrie look pretty damn stupid and self-centered, a bit later, when she so grotesquely over-reacts to Big’s (quite reasonable, again in my humble male opinion) panic attack as their impending wedding explodes into a grotesque media circus.

Then we spend two full hours waiting to see if Carrie will realize that her insistence on “I” should have been a more generous “we.”

Parker is forced to cover considerable emotional territory in this film, and she sags a bit under the burden. Her best moments come when Carrie yields to the sort of generous impulse that bonds friends for life, such as (for example) when she recognizes a cry for help and slogs across the city in the falling snow, just so Miranda won’t be alone as New Year’s Eve becomes New Year’s Day. A truly sweet moment.

On the down side, though, Parker isn’t nearly as successful at communicating Carrie’s reaction to Miranda’s confession regarding her ill-advised remark to Big at a crucial moment. Parker simply can’t sell Carrie’s flare-up with Miranda; the scene feels contrived to begin with, and Parker looks like she’s “acting.”

Longtime gripe: I’ve always been bugged by the degree to which Parker’s Carrie hogs the action in this franchise, too frequently at the expense of her equally — perhaps even more — talented co-stars.

I waited in vain, during those six seasons, for Parker to be more generous and at least allow Davis, Nixon and Cattrall to be seen during the opening credits.

In my mind, this franchise is an ensemble of equals, not a star turn with three auxiliaries ... but too frequently it didn’t feel that way.

And this big-screen continuation, sadly, repeats that mistake.

This Sex and the City opens with what feels like a solid 30-minute episode; it also closes with a good 30-minute episode. The 90 minutes in between, however, meander far too much.

And if that makes me a pariah with this film’s target audience — Tuesday’s Sacramento preview screening was skewed about 20-to-1, women to men — well, I’m clearly not the gender that counts, so you’ll just have to make allowances.

No comments:

Post a Comment