Sex and the City

(2008) ** 1/2 R
145 min. New Line Cinema, Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution. Director: Michael Patrick King. Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Christopher Noth.

/content/films/3084/45.jpgSex and the City has always been a kind of maddening feminist hall of mirrors, and the HBO series' big-screen sequel-finale does nothing to change that impression. On the bright side (gay-male writer notwithstanding), it's a franchise built around four strong, educated, career-oriented women capable of self-sufficiency: women could see themselves in one or more of four potent archetypes. But the deal has always included the notion that a man could void all reason and send each heroine—at least temporarily—into an emotional tizzy. And the New York-set series does Woody Allen's upscale milieu one worse with a lustful emphasis on brand-name fashion. What's a feminist to do? Apparently, sling back a cocktail and walk a crooked mile in Carrie Bradshaw's Manolos.

Bradshaw—initially, loosely based on columnist Candace Bushnell—is the Cinderella of New York, a fairy tale myth writer-director Michael Patrick King ruefully acknowledges in the film. Reading Cinderella as a bedtime story to her friend Charlotte's delighted adopted daughter, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) sighs, "Another one bites the dust." It's a self-conscious ambivalence that infuses the entire film, like a dieter who knows that slice of cake is wrong but eats it anyway with sinful pleasure. In the film's narrated recap-styled prologue, Carrie sums up the series as the journey of New York transplants who come looking for "the two 'L's: labels and love." King as much as admits that one goal is as soulless as the other is soulful, but Sex and the City still shows lots of love to ritzy designers and tony products, including sequences at Christie's Jewelry Auction and Fashion Week. (At the latter, the girls encounter ugly harridans trying to spoil their fun with cries of "Fur is murder!" Silly activists.)

Though not overtly mentioned in Carrie's opening and closing reflections, another key element is a celebration of four-way friendship, between women who bond over their triumphs and travails with the 'L's. Book writer Carrie takes her ups and downs with longtime lover Mr. Big (Chris Noth) to a roundtable of BFFs: defiantly single and sexually ravenous Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), turning "50 and fabulous"; excitable, married, adoptive mother Charlotte York (Kristin Davis); and workaholic lawyer Miranda Hobbes (standout Cynthia Nixon), whose marriage to Steve Brady (David Eigenberg) is rapidly turning into a sexual and emotional desert. Though Samantha lives in L.A., jet setting enables the foursome to stick together through a new round of thick and thin. Back in that prologue, Carrie insists that the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same: the 50% married women remain "single girls" at heart.

The main plotline, such as it is, concerns the potential of Carrie becoming Mrs. Big and the women's ambivalence about the meanings of marriage and commitment. I wouldn't dream of spoiling what transpires, other than to acknowledge the obvious: dramatic obstacles are contrived on a scale sufficient to sustain the running time to 145 minutes. It's the equivalent of watching five episodes in one sitting, a no-pee-break marathon that won't in the least discourage loyal fans (dispense with those cocktails in the "powder room" first, ladies). The uninitiated will hardly be lost by the plot, but may themselves be lacking the sufficient investment to care about, say, whether or not Samantha remains true to her Hollywood golden-boyfriend (Jason Lewis) or whether or not Charlotte and husband Harry (Evan Handler) can make a bundle of joy the old-fashioned way. Not to worry: all the domestic issues don't preclude sex—and Monday-morning quarterbacking of sex—with plentiful male and female displays of nudity.

Sniffing at a new demographic, King gives Carrie a new friend during a time of need: Louise from St. Louis (Jennifer Hudson), a sassy-just-so personal assistant who thinks just like her boss, about Louis Vuitton handbags and finding a dreamy "happily ever after" with a Prince Charming. Hudson is likeable, but the character amounts to a pandering plot device that rehashes and reinforces that ol' Cinderella story: Louise's reinvigoration of Carrie is redundant to that of the core friends. Of course, the movie must also strain the tight-knit friendships. Between the romantic love and the sororal love, Sex and the City disproves Love Story's motto "Love means never having to say you're sorry." These characters spill those two little words ad nauseam, along with "I never meant to hurt you."

For all its failings, Sex and the City is as sloppily affectionate as an oversized dog, and as effective against all defenses. Parker, in particular, is in her element, and King whips up enough quips and emotional moments to treat the faithful to a sort of moviegoing spa. The film's most poetic scene finds Carrie at her keyboard on a snowy, lonely night. Indecisively, she types: "Love." or "Love..." As it turns out, a period seems most appropiate. Though this blowout is a license to print money, a sequel seems unlikely. King and company have taught us all they can about female bonding, modern romance, and the importance of a walk-in closet.

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