'City' Extends Its Chic Streak

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Girls, can we talk? When it comes to "Sex and the City," the breathlessly anticipated feature adaptation of the hit HBO show, the question isn't whether it's good. The question is whether it delivers the goods -- the goods being shoes, romance, ribald humor, shoes, sex, shoes, pithy observations about single life in New York and more shoes. It's less a movie than a delivery system for sensory pleasures, sunny romance and designer-label stuff that in real life would result in diabetic shock (or at least a ruined credit rating).

With its unapologetic materialism, raunchiness and heroines who managed to be sympathetic even in the midst of almost pathological self-absorption, "Sex and the City" became one of the most successful guilty pleasures in the history of Sunday night TV. And judged by the standards of its original medium, the movie version succeeds just as well, cramming what used to take a whole season into a nearly 2 1/2 -hour marathon of men, misery and Manolos.

What's more, it slyly winks at its own ambiguous cultural impact, having spawned the decidedly dubious phenomenon of young women traveling in loud, high-heeled packs, trying way too hard to be just like the show's chic, sexually adventurous characters.

As "Sex and the City" opens, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) explains that "Year after year, 20-something women come to New York City in search of the two L's: labels and love." Then commences an opening montage that neatly telegraphs the past story arcs of Carrie and her three best friends, bringing them to the present day, four years after we said goodbye (the series ended in 2004). Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is living in Brooklyn with Steve (David Eigenberg), their son, Brady, and their housekeeper, Magda (Lynn Cohen); Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Harry (Evan Handler) live in Upper East Side bliss with their daughter, Lily; and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) has decamped for Malibu, where she manages the career of her actor boyfriend Smith (Jason Lewis).

As for Carrie, she's still with Mr. Big (Chris Noth), who has just plunked down an undisclosed sum for (what else?) a fabulous prewar penthouse.

In other words, "Sex and the City" begins at its own happy ending; the challenge for writer-director Michael Patrick King, who wrote most of the show's episodes, was to inject a credible degree of conflict and suspense into the girls' picture-perfect scenario. This he does, with a whopper that, even if it's not entirely unexpected, still lands like a blow to Carrie's perfectly toned solar plexus when it arrives an hour into the movie.

That twist efficiently puts the focus where it belongs in "Sex and the City": on Carrie, her friends and the relationship of acceptance and support that has seen them through loss, illness, heartbreak. Not to mention another important painful life passage -- being single in a couple-centric culture. Indeed, of the four women only Charlotte turns out to be securely ensconced in a traditional relationship (no surprise there). Her only problem seems to be a bout of gastrointestinal distress and finding her way through a Park Avenue apartment that seems to have no end. For Carrie, Miranda and Samantha, things aren't so smooth, which is altogether appropriate for a movie based on a series whose strength was that, even at its most dewy-eyed belief in all-conquering love, always honored struggle.

And if that struggle happens to wrap itself in of-the-moment couture, well, who's complaining? Staging not one or two but three delish designer montages (one set during New York Fashion Week), King acts like a hospitable, slightly pushy great aunt who's constantly shoving chocolates at a visitor. "Sex and the City" gives viewers a virtually nonstop sugar rush of eye candy, from the frothy frocks that Carrie dons for a Vogue photo shoot to a pair of argyle thigh-highs to die for.

Parker, far from a conventional beauty, rocks a mean smoky eye, and proves that even at 43 she's a clotheshorse extraordinaire. Here she works the screen like a catwalk, never ending up, like Carrie did in one famous episode, as fashion roadkill. (For the uninitiated on their way to "Sex and the City" this weekend: Think of the clothes, shoes and accessories simply as the movie's version of Iron Man's robot suit, Speed Racer's cars or Indiana Jones's fedora and bullwhip. And judge not others' escapist fetishes lest ye be judged.)

"Sex and the City" has clearly and lovingly been made for the show's devoted fans, so newcomers to the story may be puzzled at the movie's worship of Louis Vuitton purses and the silly, superficial women who carry them. It's true that Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha can be appallingly shallow and narcissistic; their friendship often seems based on the fact that they're simply one another's best mirrors. And it's also true that time (and King) have been kinder to some characters than others. Miranda, it seems, has become even more brittle and unforgiving (in case you don't know what she rhymes with, King actually dresses her as a witch in one scene).

But Samantha -- the sex-obsessed cougar of the bunch -- here turns out to be even more nurturing than she was in the series. She's also the subject of the movie's dumbest subplots, one involving a hunky neighbor and the other involving a full-body sushi buffet. Cattrall virtually steals the show in a performance of real warmth and vulnerability. Even at its dopiest and soapiest, one of the great pleasures of "Sex and the City" is how the filmmakers embrace their characters' advancing ages, frankly addressing issues like waning sexual desire and weight gain even while celebrating over-40 fabulosity.

In something like a class reunion, King trots out such series regulars as Stanford Blatch and Anthony Marentino, played, respectively, by Willie Garson and Mario Cantone, but he also introduces a new character: Carrie's assistant, Louise, played by Jennifer Hudson with appealing sweetness despite a role that feels patronizing and tacked-on.

And yes, Carrie can afford a personal assistant, because she's a wildly successful author -- a point easily missed in a film where work exists somewhere in the gauzy background while women attend to the far more important business of love. In this regard, "Sex and the City" continues a long line of films in which a woman's chief career is attracting and hanging on to a man. (And, in keeping with that tradition, the men here are likely to be congenitally unreliable.)

But it also continues the series's ethos of always returning to the story's stylish central foursome. If that entails a few too many shrieking reunions, confected conflicts and self-conscious conversations over Cosmos, it still means that "Sex and the City" will make sure to end on a welcome note of forgiveness, compromise and female solidarity. Like the show that inspired it, the movie invites inevitable questions: Does it simply perpetuate retrograde, materialistic myths about having it all, or does it epitomize feminism in four-inch heels?

Altogether now: We can't help but wonder . . . .

Sex and the City (136 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and profanity.

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