Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sex and the City / ** (2008)

The governing powers of television comedy would have salvaged many careers and avoided countless embarrassing situations had they established the following doctrine early on: keep sitcoms on the small screen and out of movie theaters, or else suffer the consequences. Evidence supporting this statement fills a list as long as most wedding registries, while notions to the contrary materialize like sightings of the Tooth Fairy. Consider the girls at the center of “Sex and the City,” for example; as the owners of a piece of prime real estate during the weekly cable network lineup for six long years, they earned a notoriety for taking a brazen approach to the taboos of love and sex: discussing them openly, exploring fetishes, dealing with embarrassment and, more importantly, finding their place in a society where they could only guess the intentions of horny men, and either love or hate them for it. Contrary to the suggestion, it was successful not just because it took provocative risks, but because it framed it all with intelligent contemplation.

Alas, the unspoken truth of the matter was that their shtick worked mostly as a result of consolidated time frames, and just as the antics of sexual women desperately searching for the perfect boyfriend (or just one hell of a lay) began to exhaust, we gave them affectionate goodbyes before returning to the routines of everyday life, only to be ready for another brief round a week later. I, too, admired the show, distinctly for two reasons: 1) the chemistry between the four leads was undeniable, and 2) they were caught up in predicaments of everyday life we could identify with, even if we were ashamed to admit so. But they were also scenarios that could be explored and resolved in a mere 40 minutes or so, seldom requiring exposition. That becomes the primary downfall of the movie adaptation of the series, because at a whopping 145 minutes, what exactly is there to talk about? The ladies have settled into the doldrums of marriage and separation, and their antics are reduced to a detached series of scenes that involve little more than sulking, yearning or just plain indulging in meaningless thrills. At least in those early years, they looked like they were having fun doing it.

The ending of the series was punctuated by one key event that carries over: the reunion of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her consistent on/off again boyfriend, nicknamed “Big” (Chris Noth). At the beginning of the film, their relationship has come to a critical juncture: the marriage proposal. Carrie’s idolization of her impending nuptials is exemplified in an elaborate photo spread of wedding dresses she is doing for Vogue magazine, while Big observes her enthusiasm in the same way he watches on through most things in this story: with aloof precision, and occasional dry one-liners followed by a smirk. A recent infidelity has caused uncertainty in the relationship of good friend Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), however, and friends observe these details not so much in sympathy as in self-reflection. Hey, if those two can’t find a happily ever after, who’s to say that Carrie and Big can even beat the odds?

This causes an uncertainty in the groom that dismantles the wedding on the very day Ms. Bradshaw is ready to stroll down the aisle in her white overflowing wedding dress, and the stage becomes set for two hours of scenes in which she isolates herself, throws her energy back into writing, employs a na├»ve secretary with fairy tale hopes of true love (Jennifer Hudson), and watches on with passive reaction as her fellow friends too face their own uphill battles (or triumphs) in the world of love and marriage. Many of the plot points don’t seem to exist for any sake of comedy or enlightenment, but only as ways to turn the women into bitter shells. Miranda is heartbroken by Steve’s affair and isn’t sure she can ever trust him again, but did that give her the right to inflame Big’s insecurities by telling him that marriage would be a mistake? Samantha (Kim Cattrall), still living life with her attractive movie star boyfriend, feels undersexed because he is always at work, and she takes such arousing interest in the young single guy next door that she spies him showering outdoors nude and engaging in loud threesomes (later, when the girls ask why she has gained weight, she announces plainly: “I eat and get fat to prevent myself from cheating on Smith”). Of all the ladies present, only sweet innocent Charlotte (Kristin Davis) really seems to be having somewhat of a pleasant time: settled and now pregnant with a child (her lifelong fantasy), she floats through sequences like a 50s housewife, and just when her neurotic demeanor flares up, her loving husband Harry (Evan Handler) usually appears to recite innocuous greeting card sentiments while looking at her like his face was paralyzed by the dimple machine.

Sex and love are challenges for the ladies, especially in cities as big as New York. But to hear a movie like this tell it, neither is worth achieving because all of it leads to catastrophe and tears. Where did this pessimism come from? The director Michael Patrick King, who filmed the later seasons of the original series, has either fallen out of affection with his heroines, or simply does not understand the virtues of finding a silver lining. We recognize their plight as legitimate, but not their responses; because they have been through far worse, we anticipate they will rebound with great wit and style, and somehow never do. After Big’s cold feet destroy Carrie’s dreams of the perfect wedding day, she spends the next several weeks in a dark room lying in bed – completely unnatural responses for her character, I think. And why would anyone, much less a greatly independent woman like her, mourn him anyway? He has always been a dry and vapid sort who exists basically to give Carrie a much-needed prop of shiny teeth and piercing eyes; in smarter movies based on original material, this is the kind of character that would be written out in the first act after the heroine discovered how dull he was, and then replaced by someone more worthy of the attraction.

Inevitably, however, the movie must end on happy notes, otherwise there would be no need to see it. Miranda and Steve work through their differences and decide their marriage is the most important thing in the world to them, and to their son. Charlotte’s homely life, already gifted with an adopted daughter, is enriched by the birth of a biological child; this is especially comforting since she was informed she might never have one by medical experts. Samantha decides she loves herself too much to sacrifice her happiness, and she parts ways with her beau, presumably to resume the promiscuous lifestyle she so dearly treasured years before. And Carrie? Yeah, Ms. Bradshaw and Big, after a good chunk of time apart, realize their foolish mistakes and decide they really are the ones for each other. Yet the movie opts to give them that epiphany without so much as word prior to the inevitable embrace, and after a brief reunion they rush off to a courthouse to finalize the deal, presumably before either of them has another second thought. The message of “Sex and the City,” I guess, is that love does conquer all if one is truly dedicated to it, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be assaulted by such long and exhausting treks through depression, pathos and outrage in order for a movie to make such a one-note statement. Maybe we have it easy, though; after marrying a man who has the personality of a tuning fork, Carrie certainly has got her work cut out for her in the boring sex department.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Comedy (US); 2008; Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language; Running Time: 145 Minutes

Sarah Jessica Parker: Carrie Bradshaw
Kim Cattrall: Samantha Jones
Kristin Davis: Charlotte York
Cynthia Nixon: Miranda Hobbes
Chris Noth: Mr. Big
Candice Bergen: Enid Frick
Jennifer Hudson: Louise

Produced by
Richard Brener, Kathy Busby, Eric M. Cyphers, Toby Emmerich, Jonathan Filley, Michael Patrick King, John P. Melfi, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tiffany Hayzlett Parker, Melinda Relyea and Darren StarDirected and written by Michael Patrick King

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