Sometimes I feel like my cultural literacy is shamefully limited. I watch a lot of movies but somehow I rarely watch many television shows. I only have the most basic cable, so I could tell you all about the most fascinating shows on Austin community access but nothing about, say, Sex and the City. I saw the movie Sex and the City without ever having watched an episode, with an unfortunate tendency to refer to it as Sex in the City, and with such an ignorance of pop culture that I kept mixing up Carrie Bradshaw with Carrie Underwood. I brought a friend to the screening who was well acquainted with the TV show, in case I needed help, and whispered things like "Is that the theme song?" and "What's the joke?"
Fortunately, for those of us who are encountering Sex and the City for the first time, the movie's opening sequence provides compressed backstories about the four characters so we don't feel lost and confused. But even if we didn't know who had done what and whom and where, the storyline -- set five years after the TV show's end -- is not difficult to follow. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), a novelist whose material is stolen wholesale from herself and her friends, is marrying her longtime sweetheart, the rich investment banker known as Mr. Big (Chris Noth). She still relies on her three friends for advice: Samantha (Kim Cattrall), who is now living in Malibu with her movie-star boyfriend but jets out to Manhattan the way I would drive out to the farmers market; Charlotte (Kristin Davis), who totes around a sweet little girl she's adopted from China; and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), who makes ominous comments about marriage since her own is on the rocks. The more they plan, the more lavish Carrie's wedding becomes. Complications ensue, but of course the four women stick together and support each other and buy lots of shoes just like they've always done.
As my friend pointed out, the plot of the film doesn't resemble a movie as much as it does an entire season of Sex and the City, compressed down into a mere 145 minutes. It's episodic and therefore, if you're not familiar with these characters, can take awhile to grab your interest. The charm of this movie for longtime fans of the show is in the characters themselves, not in the details of the plot, but my first impression of these women was not positive -- they appeared shallow, boring, and did nothing but shop and brag and babble on the phone. Fortunately, as the movie progresses, the characters gain more emotional depth and become more interesting and even likeable at times. However, Parker's occasional voiceover (is this a holdover from the TV show?) is irritating and unnecessary. I assume Parker is meant to be a stand-in for Candace Bushnell, whose "Sex and the City" columns and book were the inspiration for the TV show, and perhaps the voiceover was meant to symbolize her reading the stories she's written, but it contributes nothing meaningful to the film.
I can understand the fantasy aspects of a movie where no one hurts for money (even Carrie's assistant, played by Jennifer Hudson, is happy to rent the accoutrements of the rich if she can't afford them), where everyone has a successful career but never spends much time doing actual work, a world of big closets and loads of shoes and scrumptious sex talk. I was reminded a little of Depression-era films that focused on rich women in mansions with gorgeous fur coats, giving viewers a chance to live vicariously through them, but always with a little neurosis or emptiness of emotion that allowed the audience to feel superior. Sex and the City even has a fashion show right in the middle, a throwback to older movies geared toward female audiences like The Women and How to Marry a Millionaire.
Sex and the City has some good comic moments that I enjoyed -- a scene in which Charlotte's daughter is present so the women have to devise a euphemism for talking about sex, a silly montage of Carrie trying on old clothes to "Walk This Way" (with, I am told, an in-joke for fans of the TV show), an amusing but sad scene in which Samantha plans a Valentine's Day surprise for her boyfriend. But I never was able to sympathize much with these high-strung, high-maintenance, over-privileged characters. What can I say: I wear flat sandals and tennis shoes, I thought the designer purses were ugly as sin, and I don't think every woman needs a Brazilian in order to keep her man. And the film seemed far too long -- anything over 110 minutes for a romantic comedy is excessive, no matter how beloved the characters are. I spent a lot of time during the last hour of the film giving my watch surreptitious glimpses, wondering how much longer it would be before the ending, which wasn't hard to predict.
Fans of the TV show may disagree with me: the screening I attended was packed with women in cute dresses and heels (the only time I've ever felt underdressed at a preview screening). They applauded the first notes of the theme song -- until the remix kicked in -- they gasped in unison at Carrie's predicaments and laughed and clapped and had a fine time, although I think even the hardcore fans were dragging toward the end. But if you're not invested in the characters from way back, never longed to drink cosmos with "the girls," if you aren't the sort of person who loves to watch fashion shows and Vogue photoshoots and designer wedding planning, Sex and the City and its consumer-driven fantasy world may elicit little more than yawns.