Sucks in the City

I would go to see Sex and the City, the movie, if somebody paid me -- a lot.  Otherwise, no.  I've put in my time trying to appreciate the TV series, because it is always a challenge to figure out why anything is that popular.  But apart from the eye candy aspect -- all those dresses, high heels, cocktails, gourmet restaurants, ritzy apartments -- I fail to see the appeal.

I love New York, but this is not New York, it's the Upper East Side after the GEC (Great Ethnic Cleansing).  I appreciate strong smart women, but these women are weak and stupid: they never read a book, visit a museum, see a play or even a movie.  One of them is a "writer," but all she writes about is all any of them ever think about, namely their sex lives, which are a weird and pathetic hybrid of spinsterhood and promiscuity.

It is often remarked that these four characters are not women at all but gay men in drag (and not the sort of gay men who get married, either).  There's some truth to that, but it hardly excuses the show's dreary lack of wit.  After all, similar remarks have been made about one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Frasier, whose brilliantly funny characters, Frasier Crane and (especially) his brother Niles, are really gay men in a different kind of drag.

I could go on -- Sex and the City has been on my mind ever since an earnest young student in Beijing told me that she and her friends watch pirated copies of it as a form of sex education.  (Memo to Chinese government: you have your work cut out for you.)  But no one is paying me, so ... below find a pretty good swipe at the movie by the New Yorker's Anthony Lane, who would be a fine critic if he ever bothered to string more than two aperçus together.
The Current Cinema
Carrie
"Sex and the City."
by Anthony Lane June 9, 2008

Secrecy has clouded "Sex and the City" since it was first announced. When would the film appear? Who would find a husband? Would one of the main characters die? If so, would she commit suicide by self-pity (a constant threat), or would a crocodile escape from the Bronx Zoo and wreak a flesh-ripping revenge for all those handbags? As the release date neared, the paranoia thickened; at the screening I attended, we were asked not only to surrender our cell phones but to march through a beeping security gate, as if boarding a plane to Tel Aviv. There was even a full-body pat-down, by far the biggest turn-on of the night. Not a drop of the forthcoming plot had been leaked in advance, but I took a wild guess. "Apparently," I said to the woman behind me in line, "some of the girls have problems with their men, break up for a while, and then get back together again." "Oh, my God!" she cried. "How do you know?"

What followed was not strictly a movie. It was more like a TV show on steroids. The televised episodes, which ran from 1998 to 2004, lasted for no more than half an hour each. So, spare a thought for the director of the film, Michael Patrick King, who also wrote the screenplay. Faced with the flimsiest of concepts, he had to take it by both ends and pull until he stretched it out to two and a quarter hours. Two and a quarter! When Garbo made "Anna Karenina," in 1935, she got happy, unhappy, loved, left, and under the train in less than a hundred minutes, so how the hell are her successors supposed to fill the time?

To be fair, there are four of them--banded together, like hormonal hobbits, and all obsessed with a ring. As the story begins, two are married already. First, there is Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), who has a job, a child, and not enough sex with her husband, Steve (David Eigenberg), perhaps because he reminds her of Radar, from "M*A*S*H." Then comes Charlotte (Kristin Davis), who is blissfully wedded to--well, what is she wedded to, exactly? He goes by the name of Harry (Evan Handler), but he's a ringer for Dr. Evil, from the "Austin Powers" franchise, with all the evil sucked away; what remains is fey and shiny-headed, smiling sweetly about something known only to himself. For a movie about the need for real men--lusty, loyal, and loaded--this unusual earthling is truly a most peculiar advertisement for the gender.

Next, we have Samantha (Kim Cattrall). Everyone has Samantha, or had her at some point; so she would like us to believe, and this is where the film of "Sex and the City" begins to part company with the original. The TV show was smart enough to trade on both the sentimentality and the shockability of its viewers, encouraging them to sigh at romantic satisfaction while snickering at the dirty talk that gave it spice. Behind it all, one caught a whiff of stale Puritanism: despite the women's knowing bid for urbanity, there was an old-school, anti-sophisticated wish to put desire in its proper place, or, better still, to disperse it in a shared public giggle, for fear of where it might lead. Now the whiff has become a blast, and Samantha's efforts to signal her appeal, which might have seemed languorous on the small screen, are blown up here into an embarrassing semaphore: thudding closeups of her slurping through a cocktail straw or swallowing a mouthful of guacamole. No self-respecting maker of soft erotica would countenance such shots, and, as for the matching dialogue ("Something just came up," Samantha murmurs over the phone, as her boyfriend stands beside her in bulging briefs), it's a straight lift from flaccid, mid-period James Bond. In a daring plot development, she buys a dog the size of a child's slipper; the camera keeps cutting away to it, and guess what--the pooch screws, too! Mirth is unconfined.

I was never sure how funny the TV series was meant to be. It kept lapsing into a straight face, even a weepy one, as the characters' contentment came under serious threat. This uncertainty survives into the movie, which made me laugh precisely once, as a magazine editor let fly with a Diane Arbus gag. It is no coincidence that she is played by Candice Bergen, who gets just the one scene, but who is nonetheless the only bona-fide movie star on show. You cannot simply shift a load of television actors onto a movie screen and expect them to command its greater expanse; only one in a thousand will be able to summon that mysterious confluence of presence and reserve on which stardom relies--the will both to offer oneself to the camera and yet to keep back the hidden, unguessable sources of that self. We should not be surprised, therefore, that Kim Cattrall's come-ons wilt in the transition; but who would have guessed that Sarah Jessica Parker, a nimble performer who has had a career in movies aside from the TV show, should also seem diminished and ill at ease?

She plays Carrie, the writer whose voice-overs keep us up to speed with the doings of her friends, and with the reckless amassing of what she calls "the two Ls: labels and love." Whether Carrie is able to acknowledge how tightly the two Ls lock together in her mind is another matter. Early in the film, she receives a proposal of marriage from her long-term boyfriend, Mr. Big (Chris Noth), and this triggers a Babylonian orgy of spending. In a montage of wedding-dress fittings, she honors "new friends like Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera and Christian Lacroix, Lanvin and Dior," and so on; what I object to is not the name-dropping--think of it as a chick response to "American Psycho"--but the montage itself, which is shot in lazy veils of schmaltz. Compare the quick-change sequence in "Funny Face," with Audrey Hepburn robed in one Givenchy masterpiece after another, and you sense not merely the greater snap in Stanley Donen's direction (with more than a hand from Richard Avedon), and the hotter bloom of the coloring, but the way in which Hepburn herself outglows the frocks, with her smile and her imperious shout--"Take the picture, take the picture!" No thoroughbred was ever just a clotheshorse.

The women in "Sex and the City," by that standard, are little better than also-rans, and their gallops of conspicuous consumption seem oddly joyless, as displacement activities tend to be. "When Samantha couldn't get off, she got things," Carrie says. Look at the beam in your own eye, sister. Mr. Big not only buys her a penthouse apartment ("I got it"), he offers to customize the space for her shoes and other fetishes. "I can build you a better closet," he says, as if that were a binding condition of their sexual harmony: if he builds it, she will come. The creepiest aspect of this sequence was the sound that rose from the audience as he displayed the finished closet: gasps, fluttering moans, and, beside me, two women applauding. The tactic here is basically pornographic--arouse the viewer with image upon image of what lies just beyond her reach--and the film makes feeble attempts to rein it in. When the wedding hits a bump (look out for Kristin Davis screaming "No! No!" at Chris Noth like a ninth grader auditioning for "The Crucible"), and the bridegroom veers away, our heroine's reaction to the split is typical: "How am I going to get my clothes?" What, honey, even the puffball skirt that you wear to the catwalk show--the one that makes you look like a giant inverted mushroom? That plea gets second prize for the most revealing line in the film, the winner being Miranda's outburst as she hunts for an apartment in a mainly Chinese district: "White guy with a baby! Let's follow him." So that's what drives these people: Aryan real estate.

At least, you could argue, Miranda has a job, as a lawyer. But the film pays it zero attention, and the other women expect her to drop it and fly to Mexico without demur. (And she does.) Worse still is the sneering cut as the scene shifts from Carrie, carefree and childless in the New York Public Library, to the face of Miranda's young son, smeared with spaghetti sauce. In short, to anyone facing the quandaries of being a working mother, the movie sends a vicious memo: Don't be a mother. And don't work. Is this really where we have ended up--with this superannuated fantasy posing as a slice of modern life? On TV, "Sex and the City" was never as insulting as "Desperate Housewives," which strikes me as catastrophically retrograde, but, almost sixty years after "All About Eve," which also featured four major female roles, there is a deep sadness in the sight of Carrie and friends defining themselves not as Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, and Thelma Ritter did--by their talents, their hats, and the swordplay of their wits--but purely by their ability to snare and keep a man. Believe me, ladies, we're not worth it. It's true that Samantha finally disposes of one paramour, but only with a view to landing another, and her parting shot is a beauty: "I love you, but I love me more." I have a terrible feeling that "Sex and the City" expects us not to disapprove of that line, or even to laugh at it, but to exclaim in unison, "You go, girl." I walked into the theatre hoping for a nice evening and came out as a hard-line Marxist, my head a whirl of closets, delusions, and blunt-clawed cattiness. All the film lacks is a subtitle: "The Lying, the Bitch, and the Wardrobe." ♦
May 29, 2008 6:53 PM | | Comments (0)

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