Sex and the City

A guilty pleasure that’s truly guilty.

Also in Slate, Julia Turner argues that the film’s sartorial priorities were out of whack, and Lesley M.M. Blume squelches dreams of a Sex and the City: The Movie cash cow.

Kristin Davis and Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City.

Sex and the City (New Line), written and directed by Michael Patrick King, opens with a voice-over paean from Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) to the supposed twin aspirations of all New York women, “labels and love.” Over the course of the movie’s two and a half hours, the central female foursome will wax cynical, then hopeful, then ambivalent, then tentatively hopeful again about the possibility of finding love. But their faith in labels will never budge. No real-life relationship, Carrie and her cohorts reluctantly concede, can live up to the impossible expectations our culture places on romantic love. But luxury commodities? Those are more than capable of fulfilling every fantasy. The right Louis Vuitton bag—hell, any Louis Vuitton bag—can change your life.

Drop the title Sex and the City into a conversation, especially among women, and you’re unlikely to elicit a neutral shrug. During the show’s six-year run on HBO, people I knew either attended reverently irreverent Sunday-night viewing parties, or felt for the remote at the first notes of that vibraphone theme song. For me, the series functioned as a guilty pleasure that was truly guilty: I would rent a few episodes on DVD on nights when I was home alone and not up to the intellectual challenge of watching a good movie. The show’s values are reprehensible, its view of gender relations cartoonish, its puns execrable. I honestly believe, as I wrote when the series finale aired in 2004 *, that Sex and the City is singlehandedly responsible for a measurable uptick in the number of materialistic twits in New York City and perhaps the world. And yet … and yet … there’s a core truth to the show’s depiction of female friendship that had me awaiting the big-screen version with exactly the kind of cream-puff nostalgia the movie’s marketers are bargaining for. I want to know how the girls are doing, what’s happened to them in the four years since I last joined them at brunch, and what in the name of God they’re wearing.

Addressing the wardrobe question would require a separate cross-referenced concordance; let me just note that along the way there are toeless hose, rubber epaulets, pasties made of sushi, and a headdress shaped like a bird. But here’s an update on the ladies’ whereabouts: Sexually voracious Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is living in Los Angeles  managing the career of her model/boyfriend, Smith (Jason Lewis), and chafing under the strain of monogamy. Perpetually cranky lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) lives in Brooklyn (anachronistically treated as a backwater, rather than the real-estate hot spot it’s become) with her nerdy husband, Steve (David Eigenberg), and their son. Perky Charlotte (Kristin Davis, in top screwball form) is almost laughably happy with her husband, Harry (Evan Handler), and their adopted daughter. None of these women are hurting for either money or male attention, but Carrie has hit the jackpot: She’s landed her long-elusive lover, superrich financier Mr. Big (Chris Noth) and published three best-sellers with titles like Menhattan. (The movie is mercifully light on those self-searching Carrie-at-the-computer scenes that were one of the series’ recurring disappointments: Why did she have to be such a bad writer?)

Big effortlessly picks up the tab for a vast Fifth Avenue penthouse and makes plans to move in with Carrie. But sensing the fragility of their union—this is the man who made her his personal yo-yo for six years—she pushes, tentatively, for marriage. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that what follows includes a shopping montage to end all shopping montages, as Carrie poses in one couture wedding gown after another for a Vogue photographer, (In one of the movie’s crasser concessions to product placement, she names each designer in a voice-over.) And—tiptoeing gingerly around further possibilities for spoilage—I’ll also add that what happens when she finally dons the winning gown on the big day is genuinely, and believably, awful (even if the director milks it for pathos in an unforgivably corny slo-mo shot).

It’s impossible to address the movie’s principal failing—the way it insists on both having and eating the Cinderella-themed cake of romantic fulfillment—without revealing more than that. So I’ll stick to the good bits: Carrie camping it up in a succession of outfits as her friends help her winnow down her wardrobe for a move by holding up signs that read “take” or “toss.” (In real life, Carrie’s narcissism would make her a terrible friend, but Sarah Jessica Parker makes bottomless self-absorption look like such fun.) Miranda wrecking the rehearsal dinner in a moment of ill-timed honesty. Charlotte’s righteous transformation into a protective lioness when her friend is mistreated—a moment whose high drama Davis skillfully leavens by proceeding to prance offscreen with a ridiculous mincing gait.

The movie’s initially brisk pacing slackens when the girls spend a holiday in Mexico that’s long enough for them to cycle through an entire resort-wear collection. Samantha disappears entirely for stretches, and her story arc contains some of the movie’s most painfully unfeminist jokes (in which we learn, for example, that vigilant pubic grooming and toned abs are essential to female self-esteem). And an attempt to address the series’ endemic whiteness by adding a subaltern black character—Jennifer Hudson as Carrie’s designer-bag-toting Girl Friday—is a major misfire that only underscores our heroine’s oblivious entitlement. But if you bear even a grudging affection for the show’sutopic vision of female bonding as the greatest love of all, you may get choked up when Carrie appears at Miranda’s door one shitty New Year’s Eve (clad only in pajamas, a sequined cloche, a full-length fur, and what appear to be patent-leather spats) and reassures her friend, “You’re not alone.”

Correction, May 30, 2008: This article originally stated that Sex and the City, the TV series, ended in 2005. It ended in 2004. (Return to the corrected sentence.)