Tuesday, June 10, 2008

”Carrie” has the arms of a weightlifter in Sex and the City

My guess is that – just speculatin’ here – I’m not exactly whom writer/director Michael Patrick King had in mind when he created the movie version of Sex and the City. But when a key member of my wife’s girl gang ended up seeing the film with her husband – which led to interesting discussions (the word “traitor” was used) – I ended up taking Krishna to see the surprisingly long version of what feels for all the world like an episode of the HBO show stretched to fit a Holiday-special time slot. As such, it’s a diverting two-and-one-half hours, but not so diverting that it kept my mind from morphing into something akin to a film anthropologist. What really is going on here?

The plot will be familiar to anyone who’s seen even a few of the shows – the gang of four (Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, a freelance writer whose topics are sex & love, Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones, the ultimate cougar [a women whose preference is for younger men] and a longtime marketing exec, Cynthia Nixon as lawyer Miranda Hobbes & Kristin Davis as Charlotte York, a bubbly airhead whose money is strictly inherited) are all roughly ten years older than we saw them last. Two are married – Charlotte & Miranda – while the other two are in what have become longtime committed relationships, Samantha to a hunky young TV star who is shockingly nice & considerate to the partner who also serves as his manager, having moved with him to LA, and Carrie to financier Mr. Big (Law & Order’s Chris Noth). Over the course of the next 150 minutes all four women will be tested – Charlotte will get pregnant, Samantha will wonder if monogamy is all that great, Miranda leaves her marriage after her husband admits cheating (“just once”), and Carrie & Big decide to get married, then split after he gets cold feet literally at the steps to the event after Carrie has let their “little” wedding spiral out of control – full spread in Vogue, the wedding itself at the New York Public Library, the “no name” dress transforming into a Vivienne Westwood gown.

Ostensibly this film is about the choices these women make & how they resolve their issues. Yet given that three of the women are having major relationship difficulties, it’s curious that the one woman in a happy marriage, Charlotte, is the character least on view here, her husband, played by Evan Handler (whom West Wing fans will recognize as the acerbic campaign consultant with the shaved head), has almost no dialogue outside of one hospital scene after Charlotte delivers. Both Cynthia’s marriage & Carrie’s wedding collapse after the husband makes a critical mistake & Samantha finds her goody-two-shoes telly star isn’t enough to keep her from longing after her neighbor, Dante, who is wont to have trysts with different women every day (the curtains are always open) and who likes to shower on his back porch. Particularly after her beau has to work late on Valentine’s Day while Cattrall lies waiting for him dressed in nothing but homemade sushi (“places where wasabi has no right to go”).

So the men give the women an excuse to opt out, which three of them do, and they’re all there for each other (save for a curious subplot regarding Miranda and Carrie’s betrothed), then two of them learn little lessons about forgiveness & all’s well that end’s well. There’s another little tale-within-the-tale involving a personal assistant to Carrie, portrayed by Jennifer Hudson, who does seem to handle these film cameos with great élan. But that’s basically it for two-and-a-half hours.

So what takes so much time? First, it seems to be harder to introduce characters whom 98 percent of the audience already knows than it would have been on their own – the first 30 minutes of this film are really awkward & slow, so that it’s all uphill from there. Second, the main narrative arc – Big & Carrie finding “the perfect apartment” (it’s a penthouse) gives them time to contemplate making over the shell of a unit (the object of desire here is a closet) & Carrie has to decide what to take & what to pitch after 20 years in her previous place, which occasions much trying on of vintage wear. Then the run up to the wedding takes a great deal of time as every little item suddenly gets bigger, from the dress (from a “no name” dress to high art couture), to the location (the aforementioned NYPL), to the guest list – 75 to over 200. Somewhere in there is a trip to Fashion Week – I’m not kidding – and we get to see one collection its entirety. Not to mention the Vogue shoot. Finally there is the item that drew the loudest and most awed gasps from the audience I saw the film with in Plymouth Meeting, PA, the closest thing in this film to pure porn the redesigned walk-in closet, larger than a lot of New York apartments.

This is a film all about surfaces & labels – indeed, it admits as much in the very first sentence of Carrie’s voiceover at the start of the film – “young women come to New York in search of the two Ls, labels & love.” And it’s intriguing, actually, that the quartet are all (save maybe for Charlotte) allowed to show their age. There are moments here when Carrie, Miranda & Samantha all look quite tired, even haggard & scenes in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s neck, her arms & her knees may well make her cringe, in spite of the fact that she obviously puts a lot of time in at the gym. In fact, each is much more interesting when they're not being beautiful and that may be the point (also why it’s the airhead who’s not included in this). There are several scenes later in the film that are nothing but shots of Carrie, her hair dyed a darker brown, looking pensive, like any woman in her forties contemplating the question of age in a society that is so heavily marketed to the young.

Which is why, I suspect, that only one of the couples thinks about therapy – Miranda & her philandering ex-. If you have to choose between psychology & shoes, the Sex and the City franchise will opt always for the latter, even as it knows, in the pit of its guilty stomach, that the former really is more important. In a film that is all about surfaces, it’s difficult to create a tale of insight. Perhaps this is why the decision of Miranda & Steve to meet midway on the Brooklyn Bridge if they’ve decided to put his affair & her rigid punishing ways behind them seems so terribly hokey. Not to mention Carrie & Big’s romantic reunion in the closet. Or why the decision of Samantha to move back to New York & return to her role as constant sexual predator isn’t commented on at all, even as they celebrate her 50th birthday.

It would be interesting actually – I mean this in a completely serious way – to revisit this quartet again in ten years & just maybe another time ten years after that, not unlike Michael Apted’s Up film series (the last episode of which was 49 Up after following the same real people since they were seven). At what moment, do you think, does life become about something more than shoes given who these people are? Will Samantha ever contract a serious STD? Or figure out that her lifestyle, the female equivalent of Joe Namath or Wilt Chamberlain, is itself terribly lonely? At what moment will 25-year-old men stop responding? Will Miranda ever get beyond being uptight? Perhaps as a judge? Will parenting turn Charlotte into an adult? The whole text of age would be interesting to explore with this set of characters, but it’s not clear to me that the makers – its primary writers have always been men, Darren Star on the TV series & King here – have the intellectual perspective to make it work.

Seeing Sex and the City the same weekend that Hillary Clinton finally withdrew from the presidential race gave this film’s overlaps with feminist subtexts a sharper edge than they might have had some other time. This is, after all, a franchise that shows women as successful and superficial all at once, a contradiction it never fully owns or explores, tho it does seem from time to time to be conscious of its presence. Clinton’s candidacy was sunk more by her vote on Iraq & poor planning – ignoring the caucus states will live in infamy as Mark Penn’s dumbest move – than it was by the continual misogyny of cable news & others (try to imagine a black stereotype piece of merchandise equivalent to the Hillary Clinton nutcracker!) but that misogyny was a constant irritant & has, I think, rubbed a lot of people quite raw over the past several months. I’m not convinced, frankly, that Sex and the City itself is free of such misogyny, even as it markets itself as the ultimate female guilty pleasure.

You’re always aware that the hierarchies here are in place. Not just as in label versus no-label, but even among the actresses. Parker never disrobes (to the degree that in the final love-in-a-closet climax, the two are lying on the shag rug fully clothed afterwards, their hair perfectly in place), while it is Nixon who has the hot sex scene with everything out there for the audience to see. It’s Cattrall under all those California rolls & we even catch a glimpse of a Kristin Davis nipple in a brief love scene. It all reinforces the hierarchies that are in place elsewhere not just in this movie, but in society with regards to women. There is a scene in which personal assistant Hudson is given a Louis Vutton purse by Carrie, so that she can return to St. Louis a success because she got a name purse! Is that what African American women want? Somehow I have my doubts.