By Chris Wisniewski
Sex and the City
Dir. Michael Patrick King, U.S., Warner Bros.
When historians deliver their postmortem on the American film industry, they will undoubtedly puzzle over Hollywood's recent woman problem. Just last year, the lousy box-office returns of The Brave One and The Invasion prompted the president of production at Warner Brothers to swear off female leads for good. Though such a statement is preposterous on its face, it's in this context that the theatrical performance of Sex and the City, driven overwhelmingly by women, becomes a talking point for industry analysts eager to suggest that Sex has galvanized a previously untapped audience—this, despite the fact that The Devil Wears Prada, a similarly fashion-driven urban-fantasy confection, took advantage of its appeal to the same under-leveraged demographic two years ago. And it's not just that women are dropping their twelve bucks to see Sex and the City in droves; if the sold-out crowd I saw it with on its opening night is any indication, at least some of them are getting their money's worth. This is not to say that Sex and the City is any good (it isn't), still less that it's duped unsuspecting women into an unabashed celebration of trash. But Sex and the City delivers some pleasure, nostalgic and otherwise, and I am most struck by the tendency of "smart" critics to simply dismiss it out of hand, rather than considering the appeal of this failed movie. Or to put it another way, the relative quality—or lack thereof—of the Sex and the City movie may be the least interesting thing about it.
There's only so much insight to be gleaned from itemizing Sex and the City's shortcomings—its excessive length, Jennifer Hudson's embarrassing turn as Mammy “Louise from St. Louis,” Michael Patrick King's lazy direction (visually, the film ranges from uninspired to aesthetically offensive—we get two, yes two, slow-motion shots of a cell-phone flying through the air and an incongruous fashion show sequence that plays like a coked-out reference to George Cukor's The Women), and his often awful screenplay ("She was a smart girl till she fell in love" cautions Rent's Daphne Rubin-Vega in a women's bathroom before fading once again into obscurity). But the movie shares some of the series' least appealing qualities without many of its virtues: The show had its share of wince-inducing lines (“If you're tired, you take a Napa, you don't move to Napa”; “Why are we in such a rush to move from confused...to Confucious?”), and so too with the movie (“We were dressed head-to-toe in love . . . the only label that never goes out of style”). King has also amped up the show's already shameless commodity obsession beyond any level of acceptability, yet he's lost thematic focus and squandered years' worth of character development.
In the finest Sex and the City episodes, as was also often the case in Seinfeld, the writers would work from a central question or idea and build each of the four characters' stories out from there. While the movie loosely connects its various plot threads around the theme of forgiveness, over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours and enough twists to fill a season of episodes, it becomes something of a muddle. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Big (Chris Noth) agree to marry, but he leaves her at the altar—or rather, the New York Public Library (which, for the record, is not a circulating library, despite what we see here)—and she cuts him out of her life without question and with the full support of her friends Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon). Meanwhile, Miranda's separated from her husband, Steve (David Eisenberg), who cheated on her—not, mind you, because he's a bad guy, but because they haven't been having sex. We get the sense that the girls don't approve of her unilateral decision to ditch Steve (apparently, it's worse to publicly embarrass someone by leaving her at the altar rather than to, say, violate a sacred vow), perhaps because they think Miranda brought Steve's infidelity upon herself by being frigid.
To make matters more complicated, a jilted Miranda harbors additional guilt for telling Big, "You're crazy to get married" on the night of the rehearsal dinner after a painful run-in with Steve. When she finally confesses her unlikely faux pas to Carrie (come on, we're honestly expected to believe, first, that someone as smart as Miranda would say something as graceless and stupid as that to the groom-to-be, and second, that her declaration would catalyze Big's last-minute change-of-heart?), Carrie flips out: "You ruined my marriage!" So now Carrie also needs to forgive Miranda, and as far as I can tell, the whole plot hinges on Miranda being a selfish, frigid, shrill, emotionally closed woman—who doesn't even wax her bikini line! King returns time and again to the suggestion that Miranda is somehow not adequately feminine, and that this constitutes, somehow, her problem. By some miracle, though, Nixon—always the show's strongest performer—manages to draw on enough residual goodwill to save the character from her unforgiving writer. Parker's Carrie, meanwhile—the presumed locus of our identification—isn't given much to do: she drinks a lot, hires aforementioned mammy, and then gets a big closet. Oh, and she forgives everyone.
Charlotte and Samantha, unburdened by King's need to connect these episodic sketches into a coherent(ish) feature, are by far more fun to watch. Charlotte poops her pants (sorry Manohla Dargis: funny, very funny). Samantha spends hours waiting for her tardy boyfriend on Valentine's Day, spread naked on the dining room table with sushi rolls strategically placed on her naughty bits, and later gets fat after sublimating sexual desire with food (more on that in a bit). And both stand by Carrie and Miranda without equivocation or judgment. At its best, the series combined scatological and crass sexual humor with a spirit of female solidarity and a dash of urban fairytale wish-fulfillment, and in a few scenes, thanks especially to the two characters it most under-utilizes, the film hits that balance. Sex and the City has always seemed to occupy a nexus of recognition and aspiration for single urban women and gay men. How simple that is, and yet it seems to me to be the "secret" to the movie's $60 million opening weekend.
Lost in all of this, though, is the not-so-subtle corrective the film offers to the finale of the series. Where the show ended by pairing each of its heroines off with their respective perfect mates, the film leaves Samantha (the least interesting, by far, of the four), gloriously unattached. A common criticism of the series has been its tendency to depict women as behaving “like gay men.” The charge is troubling not least for its reification of stereotypes of gay male promiscuity but also for its subtle assertion that ideal femininity doesn't square with unbridled—or at least, uncomplicated—sexual desire. The argument rests on the problematic assertion that women simply "aren't that way"—a suggestion that is both insulting and absurd. Samantha, though, was always a counterpoint to this retrograde perspective, the show's unchecked id—she's the Blanche of these golden girls, and also the oldest of the bunch. The movie finds Samantha in a relationship with a younger actor who doesn't have much time for her, but rather than positing loneliness or emotional distance as the problem in their relationship, the issue, instead, is sex: she wants it, and he's too tired. Samantha eventually breaks it off, simply because she wants to be a 50-year-old woman who can have sex with whomever she wants. Not to pick on Anthony Lane, but he rails hard on this one: “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.’” And why not? Lane conflates sexual and romantic desire by suggesting that Samantha has a “view to landing another.” Samantha doesn't want to land anything; she just wants a good lay. She abandons her relationship after staring longingly (and eating), day after day, as her hot next-door neighbor surfs, strips, and fucks. It all climaxes with a slo-mo shower sequence like something out of softcore Skinimax with the gender roles reassigned—Samantha watches him, the water flowing down his naked body, until we finally, yes finally, get a cock shot. It’s Laura Mulvey turned on her head—the male body on display for the female gaze—simple, carnal female desire presented in a manner almost completely foreign to mainstream American cinema. Who wouldn't want a piece of that? You go, girl, indeed.