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ON FILM: Sex and the City predictably comfy

By Philip Martin

This article was published June 6, 2008 at 3:34 a.m.

— One of the weird things about being a film critic is that you seldom have what most people might consider a typical movie experience. These days I see most movies at home (courtesy of screener DVDs) and if I do go to a theater it's usually for an advance screening. Often I'll see a movie at 10 a.m. with only a couple of other people in the theater. Sometimes I'm the only one in the audience.

I'm not complaining, but I wouldn't argue this is the best way to see movies. Ideally we'd see every movie with fresh eyes, on a big screen, surrounded by rapt strangers. We'd walk in ignorant of the conventional wisdom and innocent of expectations, prepared to allow the movie to work whatever magic it can muster on us. We should go to the movies hopeful of surprise.

I will admit I was not hopeful of surprise when I saw Sex and the City (on its opening day, in a theaterwith civilians). I pretty much got what I expected, which is comforting in the same way a jelly doughnut (or a fresh pair of Manolo Blahniks - whatever those are) can be comforting. No one pretends that such purchases are good for you, but most of us succumb now and then, and it's fair to say that some of us are susceptible to wallowing.

But the fate of overindulgers isn't really our concern; it's not the doughnut that caused the void you're trying to fill. Sure, it's absolutely true that Sex and the City is on many levels rubbish, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy seeing it. Which isn't a problem when you're not a film critic, and isn't really for me either although I guess that some people might think it odd. I liked the TV series too, but what I liked about it was the experience of watching it with someone I love, talking back to the screen and commenting on the often silly spectacle. Which you really shouldn't do in a crowded theater - some things don't transfer all that well to a public venue.

Still, the movie is a comfortable experience for an old fan - I can't imagine what someone unfamiliar with theseries might think - in that it's utterly untaxing and painless. It was at least half an hour too long, and the writing isn't as sharp as I remembered from the HBO series, but I'm not sure these sort of considerations matter either to the creators or the consumers of this particular fantasy.

Sex and the City has always been a gay camp parody of the way fabulous heterosexual women court affection - it's all about clothes and sex and the neurotic impulses of four improbably cute (not to mention economically secure) female friends in their 40s: Writer Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), event planner/maneater Samantha (Kim Cattrall), lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Junior Leaguer Charlotte (Kristin Davis). It's not a documentary, darling, it's a trashy TV show blown up movie size.

Which creates some problems: The 30-minute TV episodes blew past in such a hurry that we never got around to wondering whether any of these chicks could act, a question rendered moot by a movie that relies on their status as icons. The fab four are as the Beatles were - everybody is presumed to have a favorite. And the one you pick says something about your character - are you a randy Samantha or a mousy Miranda? Are you a bepearled Charlotte or a fashion-forward Carrie?

What I liked best about the series and the movie is the unrepentant selfishness of most of the characters - all these women have redeeming qualities but they are also about self-gratification, to the extent that the men in their lives all come across as generic rich guys whose chief qualifications seem to be their ability tokeep their women in the high style they take as their birthright. (One of the biggest disappointments in the movie is the revelation that Carrie's recurrent beau Mr. Big actually has a name, and that it can be spoken aloud.)

That's entirely fair, given how women are usually portrayed in art and politics. It's sort of refreshing to see the dudes reduced to girlfriend roles. Miranda obviously believes she married down, although humble bartender Steve (David Eigenberger) is arguably the most decent character in the movie. Samantha's boy toy is an impediment to her self-actualization, and Charlotte's perfect (if slightly froggy) prince Harry (Evan Handler) is so much background dressing. While the girls spent five seasons on cable chasing romance, now that they've all more or less settled into exclusive relationships, their guys seem like accessories.

(And, on another subject, the lad mag campaign against Sarah Jessica Parker's "babeitude" strikes me as grotesque - if you don't think she's hot, guys, then don't date her.)

On the other hand, one might have hoped for a plot that does more than hit the expected notes, and the one-liners don't seem nearly as witty as they did back in 2003. Nor is the movie very sexy; everyone (except for Parker) has their naked moment, but they all feel obligatory and more knowing than naughty.

Still, I'm glad I saw it - the success of the movie depends on the curiosity of old voyeurs returning to the scene of the crime for one more peek. That's really what this is, a little glimpse into the future of some slight but indelible characters; four sketchy women drawn from someone's idea of a fabulous life.

MovieStyle, Pages 37, 39 on 06/06/2008

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