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‘Sex and the City'

I loved the HBO series Sex and the City, and never thought it belonged to the entertainment ghetto that the phrases “chick flick” and “chick lit” imply. The show explored the same social and emotional territory that Balzac covered in his novels about Rastignac and other young men from the provinces who come to the Big City and fling down the gauntlet of their ambition, daring Paris to deny them its riches and romance and sensual savors. But now the city is New York, the protagonists are female, and Rastignac is Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), aided and abetted by her “posse”: Samantha the publicist (Kim Cattrall), Charlotte the curator (Kristin Davis), and Miranda the lawyer (Cynthia Nixon). What was good for the gander...

Sex wasn’t just hip and funny but often acute in its skewering of modern attitudes and self-deceptions: newly married couples labeling single young women immature when they really regard them as dangerous; the head of a law firm not only greeting a junior colleague’s putative lesbianism with delight but also playing matchmaker on her behalf so that his trendy wife can include one (but only one) gay couple in her dinner parties; an elderly, autocratic housekeeper at first tolerating her wealthy and equally elderly employer bedding a young woman but then flinging the intruder out into the night when the girl proves too squeamish to embrace the boss’s sagging body. And in the final episodes, when Carrie found herself torn between a globe-trotting artist (Mikhail Baryshnikov) and a tycoon (Chris Noth), the script, without being unfair to any of the lovers, persuasively demonstrated that capitalists can sometimes be more caring than artists, if only because rich guys have more time at their disposal than those who dance attendance on the Muse.

In all of the above can you suss out my looming disappointment in the big-screen sequel? Actually, overlong though it is at 148 minutes, Sex and the City passes the time agreeably, contains more than a few laughs, and even has its share of poignancy and satiric perceptiveness, though it is never as sharp as the TV show. If you don’t know the series, you won’t understand what all the fuss is about, but if you’ve been a fan, you will probably want to see the movie in order to spend more time with the heroines. Still, the film is, in a fundamental way, unnecessary. It is presented as the final installment of the series but the last small-screen episode wrapped things up in too satisfying a way to need a sequel or even an epilogue. Carrie the romantic had finally accepted “Big” the tycoon as her truly significant other; Samantha the sexually exultant publicist had snared a young actor to publicize and to be sexually exultant with; Charlotte the ultra-WASP adopted both her husband’s religion (Jewish) and a baby (Chinese); and the ambitious Miranda plunged ahead in her legal career but learned to share her life with a less ambitious and rather needy spouse. If all these denouements seem overly predicated on supposedly independent women securing male companionship, I agree, but Sex and the City aspired to be classic comedy, and comedy traditionally ends in marriage (or, nowadays, living together).

So what does a filmmaker do with a story that needs no sequel but that, because it is a big commercial property, will have a sequel? Well, if you are writer-director Michael Patrick King (who also helmed the TV show), you strain and huff and puff and contrive instead of create.

For this new Sex and the City positively creaks with contrivance. Does Carrie’s future seem to hold nothing but happiness with her Big? Well, happiness is undramatic, so the tycoon must stand her up at the altar. But wouldn’t that make him seem like too much of a cad? Then he must immediately repent his recalcitrance but can’t reassure Carrie because of a cell-phone snafu. Creak.

Has Samantha found both great sex and career fulfillment with her hunk? Then she must suddenly discover that by thinking of him so much she has ceased thinking of herself, a capital offense in our age of self-fulfillment. But are we to believe that Sam, an experienced publicist, doesn’t know that her job entails thinking about a client almost all the time, whether he’s your lover or not, and that such concern would empower and financially reward both him and herself? Creak.

Charlotte? We last saw her being happy with an adopted child. In the film we get to see her being happy with a birth child. (Though there is a hilarious moment when she tries to pronounce a grandiose curse on Big just as her water is breaking.) Miranda? On TV she reunited with the hapless Steve after a breakup. In the movie, she...uh...reunites with the hapless Steve, etc. Creak, yawn, creak, creak.

Still, the movie has two things working in its favor: a piece of artistry and a massive incitement for daydreaming.

The artistry is Cynthia Nixon’s. Miranda was always the least classifiable of the quartet and Nixon made the most of that complexity. She layered the role: beady-eyed stares at the shenanigans of men often melted into compassionate contemplation of their follies; willed frigidity could get tripped up by unlooked-for longings; simmering irritation might escalate into fury. Since the other characters handled the physical comedy, Nixon was free to communicate with subtle shifts of facial expression and the camera loved getting close to her. So secure is her talent that Nixon is able to make even her physical flaws—a weak chin, a hint of congestion in her voice—into components of her fascination. This portrait of a very modern woman who might once have “wanted it all” but now finds herself anticipating less and less was indelible on the small screen and remains compelling on the big one, even if the writing has merely recycled Miranda instead of expanding her.

But I think the real fascination of the movie is to be found in what happens to Carrie’s wedding. Since Big can afford it, the nuptials are destined to be spectacular and Carrie glories in the preparations—a fashion show on steroids—and the audience can vicariously luxuriate with her. But director King isn’t content with a procession of gowns. He really gets into a vision of wedding as ritual, a female rite of passage, and he communicates it not just with the clothes and the décor but also with ethereal close-ups of Carrie’s frighteningly blissful face. (Frightening to men.) Though Sarah Jessica Parker is an adept comedienne, it’s not her comic talent that is at the center of the wedding sequence but her chameleon-like face, which can look dazzlingly beautiful at one moment and startlingly ugly the next, depending on how it’s lighted. I was generally disappointed with this movie’s photography, which captured none of the New York romance that the heroines feel, but the lighting of Parker’s face is a remarkable feat. Anticipating the walk to the altar, she looks like the model for a Renaissance painter’s angel. Jilted, she looks haggard and drawn.

During the movie, I bridled at all this. An aborted wedding is an embarrassment and a private pain, not a human-rights atrocity. But thinking it over later, I realized that the splendors and miseries of the nuptials are precisely what have bonded women in the audience both to Carrie and to one another while keeping at a distance the relatively few men who have seen the film. Carrie certainly loves Big, but is Big personally necessary to the ecstasy she feels, and is the loss of his company the specific cause of her abysmal depression? What I took away from the movie goes something like this: Men may at times be the catalysts of the joys and woes of women, but they are only catalysts, never the source. Here, the source is the wedding itself. And is this the cause of the startling animosity that some men have expressed toward the movie? To be a man sidelined by your lover’s friends may be annoying but sometimes a relief; to be sidelined by her career can be tough but necessary; but to be sidelined by the very ceremony that is supposed to bind you and her to each other forever is outrageous. It’s enough to shrink a male in every conceivable way, even if your name isn’t Big.

 


Related: The Right Questions, by Cathleen Kaveny

Published in the 2008-07-18 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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