Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sex and the City

By David Luhrssen
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Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha are four years older than they were when their Emmy-winning series ended. As the movie version of Sex and the City begins, they are no wiser. By the conclusion, however, at least a few of lifes lessons have been learned. Running on HBO from 1998 through 2004, Sex and the City was a long series of comic vignettes on the lives of single young women in one of the worlds most glamorous places, Manhattan. The size of its success (millions still watch it on cable reruns) speaks to the chord Sex and the City struck among its largely female audience. It was one of the rare television shows to explore the meaning of being a woman and beingwell, not alone exactly. Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha had their careers, they had many men and, bottom line, they had each other. The careers were satisfying to a degree and gave Carrie, a writer, the opportunity to reflect intelligently on her choices. The men never seemed to be that allusive (or was it illusive?) Mr. Right, even if Carrie was often in the arms of Mr. Big. Perhaps the most attractive part of their lives, aside from the colorful profusion of shoes, skirts and handbags, was the bond of their friendship. Together they formed a rocky island in a sea of uncertainty, solid ground in the shifting currents of postmodern life. They could count on each other.

The film adaptation, starring the original cast of Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie), Kristin Davis (Charlotte), Cynthia Nixon (Miranda) and Kim Cattrall (Samantha), grapples with the foursomes choices as they push past youth toward middle age. Was their earlier life only an extended lark? And should they settle for Mr. Right Enough if Mr. Right never materializes? Ultimately, Sex and the City wonders how anyone can square the dreams of youth, assuming they were ever acted upon, with the demands of growing up.

The four distinct characters approach their dilemmas differently. Mirandas march toward the frumpy end of responsibility threatens to end her marriage to good-hearted Steve. She had lost interest in sex and wont forgive him for his one stray night, for which he is heartily sorry. Samantha, concerned with little but sex and power, is going to be a disturbing force of nature in any committed relationship. Charlotte, the most annoying of the four with her prissiness and girlish shrieks of happiness, is the one who has found stability in a Jewish marriage with an adopted Chinese child.

Carrie, filling the role of narrator as she did on the cable series, is at the intersection of the rambling plot lines. Mr. Big agrees to marry her after they find a heavenly prewar apartment with parquet floors and French doors opening onto a terrace overlooking Central Park. The wedding plans assume a life of their own, including a photo shoot for Vogue and a ceremony in the baroque splendor of Carries favorite place, the New York Public Library. Only one problem but its a large one: Can Mr. Big, a handsome New York plutocrat, actually commit?

The trouble with the movie is not that it forces its central characters to consider the next phase of their lives. Its just that it could have been both funnier and more fun spread out over a season of shows than crammed into a single, overstuffed two and a half hour movie. Director Michael Patrick King was unable to marshal the stories of Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha into the streamlined comedy a Sex and the City film should have been. What might have seemed humorous and sharply insightful in a half hour starts to become a long, tired slog to the finish line. There are amusing moments but too many mirthless stretches where product placement is crucial (even if the four women were always keen on designer labels). There are needless side plots, including that Hollywood perennial of the wise-in-the-ways-of-life African-American sidekick, who appears as Carries personal assistant and helps her sort out priorities as well as her clothes closet.

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