Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sex sells

Last night, my wife and I saw Sex and the City, accompanied by our friends. I'm pleased to say the womenfolk survived untainted, we guys bore up manfully, and that I am reasonably confident that our nation, the international market, and civilization will survive its purported outrage and triple-digit-millions haul. Honestly, the way some male reviewers are carrying on about Carrie and Co., as if femalekind needs to be protected from its alleged abuses, is ridiculous, but that is the red meat boys-will-be-boys blogs thrive upon. Manohla Dargis at The New York Times, an astute critic in some ways, but a Sixties-era Friedan-inist when it comes to women on film, partakes of some of this attitude, but her critique, based on a closer reading of the show, is more nuanced.

My Sex-ual initiation began with its second season. I got HBO to
watch The Sopranos, and sort-of fell into its fellow powerhouse on the distaff side. [I don't think I've ever seen any of the first season episodes.] I liked it, and the way it addressed the gap between the fantasy and the reality of its characters' lives (it's all fantasy, of course, but it did, for example, explore how Carrie's paycheck fell far short of her go-go lifestyle with reasonable, been-there-myself accuracy) and the subtle way it changed and became more "grown-up" post 9/11. The movie has been attacked for being regressive, that Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie is back in the money pit of fashion and carousing that "good girls" don't partake in, but the movie announces at the outset that she has three bestsellers to her credit, so she can well afford a spree. [She still lives in the same, modest Upper East Side apartment as before, and the movie saves its revelry for clothes given to her, like all those Vogue-assigned wedding dresses, or in presents she buys other friends.]

It is, I think, a matter of scale. Co-creator and first-time bigscreen writer and director Michael Patrick King does not announce himself as an auteur with the film. It is long, and slovenly around the edges, like several episodes of the show strung together than its own thing for the cinema, as if he felt there would be no chance for a sequel and he'd better get it all in, now. George Cukor, the eminent director of women (and The Women, which has been remade for fall release) is in no immediate danger of being displaced from the pantheon, though it is worth noting that his last film, 1981's Rich and Famous, anticipates the show in a few ways, and was also dismissed as coarse and tacky. [Both feature the generations-straddling Candice Bergen.] What's acceptable on the small screen doesn't necessarily translate to the big when simply transposed. Patricia Field's costumes, delightful punctuation on the show, read as exclamation marks on film--there is a too-muchness to them, but the ladies seemed to go for the frequent, show-stopping montages. They're like the fiery action sequences in Transformers or Live Free and Die Hard for boys, and I wasn't appalled, just a little bemused by the excess, which is bantered about in the film. [Kim Cattrall's Samantha has a hat in her Malibu wear the length and width of an airport terminal.]

The men are a different story. Unprepossessing on TV, they are pint-sized at the movies, Wendell Coreys all. [He was the fallible, weak-looking actor so often cast with Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck to make them all the stronger.] It's nice that David Eigenberg's Steve and Evan Handler's Harry are so normal-looking, but there's normal and there's normal, and they are normal to a fault (neither hugs the camera). The 37-year-old Jason Lewis has turned into the Spider-Man incarnation of Willem Dafoe in the four years since the show ended, and is much the worse for wear; I was surprised to find that the actor, playing a boy toy, was that old to begin with. Chris Noth's "Big" (whose real last name Preston, is King's hopeful nod to Preston Sturges) is keeping up appearances, but with each passing year is more and suitable for The Victor Mature Story. One of these guys isn't coming back for the sequel, if there is to be one beyond the implied passing-of-the-torch at its close; none would be a great loss.

King, who has a knack for how women talk and interrelate, needs to bring in a co-writer or adviser for the men in their lives. And he could have brought Jennifer Hudson, cast as Carrie's personal assistant, closer to the action; as it is, she is close to Carrie's accessory, though the payoff for her labors for white-woman maintenance, a genuine, $5,400 Vuitton bag, seemed worth it to our audience, who applauded the gift. As a parting gift, perhaps, the Oscar-winning Dreamgirl, who gives a surprisingly tentative performance, also gets to sing a song.

As my wife said, the great love affair on the show isn't between a woman and a man; it's between a woman and her closet, and the closet in Big and Carrie's Fifth Avenue love nest is an aphrodisiac that sent the ladies into ecstasy. [I do wonder, though, how audiences weaned on edited reruns of the show felt about the entirety of the unexpurgated film, which includes nude-ish scenes for three of the women and an actual penis.] The secret to its Sex-cess may be that in its fantasyscape of New York (which acknowledges, grudgingly, that Brooklyn may the New New York, though it may now be Queens), there is no drudgery. There is just a succession of milestone events (if Carrie has a family to attend her nuptials, they are not in this movie) and accompanying wardrobe changes over which relationships are repaired--little of consequence changes irreparably in the movie--and friendships solidified. Girls will be girls as much as boys will be boys, and the republic is not the worse for wear for dreaming.

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