Sex and the City: The Phantom Menace
June 1, 2008
Friday night Dash and occasional commenter Jennifer went to go see the highly anticipated “Sex and the City.” Even though we had already bought our tickets, Jennifer wanted to get to the theater early to get seats and impetuously insisted I turn off Top Chef. As I tarried, longing to see the nefarious Lisa get bounced from the cooking competition (alas, t’wasn’t to be), Jennifer grew more and more harried, and I eventually realized what was happening: this was her first “fanboy” movie. As a veteran of midnight shows for different Star Warses (Star Warsi? Star Warseux?), Matrixes (aha! a known plural!), Spidermen, the recent Indiana, and assorted other popcorn flicks, I’d learned that there are real event movies that require waiting hours in the cold, and fake event movies that simply require buying tickets on time. I was sure that this was one of the latter. And besides, how violent could an audience of fashionista dilettantes be? Getting to the theater on time to get good seats, Jennifer and I settled in for what we hoped would be an epic (2 hours and twenty minutes!) celebration of all things copulation, Manhattan, and, above all, excess told with its trademark brand of bittersweet punning.
Sadly the movie is nowhere near as good as its television forerunner. In fact, it’s pretty bad. The Metro paper proudly proclaimed that Bad Sex is better than No Sex, but I’m not really sure if that’s true. While it was nice to see some of the characters again, we now have the misfortune of added plot developments. Our lasting image of Miranda is not one of character growth, but of regression; Charlotte becomes a caricature; Samantha loses her sex appeal; and Carrie momentarily loses her ability to pun, and, save for the opening and denouement, her ability to narrate. This may not sound like much, but it’s a significant change in storytelling from the show, emblematic of the movie’s biggest problem.
“Sex and the City” the movie’s biggest defect is its obsession with movieness. Terrified of resembling a TV show, Sex goes to extremes to distance itself from its past: gone are the voice-overs, the sets, the pacing, even the theme song. It’s a brave new “Movie” world and everything needs to look new, bright, shiny, and new. The biggest blame for this lies with the movie’s “auteur” Michael Patrick King. The showrunner the last few years, King is a novice feature film director and it shows. Leaving aside the story for a moment, the movie has serious stylistic flaws. The cinematography is the primary example of Sex’s mal du cinema: the shots are bizarre, obsessed with monumentality rather than normal composition. Everything is made to look larger than life, and as a result, we’re visually separated from the characters. No-longer intimately in their world, but held at a distance. The mis en scene is also particularly troubling. Gone are the textures and contrasts. It cannot be repeated enough that the film’s primary aesthetic is blinding brightness. There are no shadows, no darker hues with which to cue our eyes to what is visually important or simply to give us something new to see. On the show, Carrie’s apartment was noticeably darker than the superficial world outside and matched Carrie’s introspective monologues. But the movie has no room for such applications of the objective correlative, and Carrie is given a bright and shiny apartment of her own. Even the show’s trademark costuming suffers from the malady of supersizing. The Times Style section perfectly deconstructed the film’s take on fashion: “But in the film the characters are now four years older and, in a disappointing way, their styles appear to have changed into one: the offbeat, orgiastic, do-it-yourself madness of Carrie, the dominant female. It is not only that they now dress alike. In every scene the women are practically coordinated by both color and style, as if they had received a morning memo detailing the day’s dress code. Let’s all wear primary colors to a jewelry auction! Let’s all wear psychedelic hippie dresses on a trip to Mexico! Let’s all wear smart black-and-white ensembles and fur coats to a fashion show!” (more here)
But in the end, such considerations are trivial compared to the story. King was one of, if not the best, writer of “Sex and the City” the TV-show, making his failure at crafting a good screenplay all the more mystifying. The movie’s plot is non-sensical; a season or more of the show condensed into 2.5 hours. This on its own shouldn’t have been too troubling; after all, the movie is almost as long as the pregnancy shortened fifth season. If King wanted to, he could have just written the movie as 7 connected episodes, or in movie terms, “vignettes.” After all, the movie at times plays like this. Characters go from event to event without any sort of logical progression (and now they’re in Mexico! and suddenly it’s new years and Carrie’s asleep at 9!) only connecting events through very very obvious foreshadowing. As I mentioned before, Miranda regresses as a character, showing none of the consideration for others that she did in the last season of the show. Charlotte has no character except to be happy. Samantha endlessly ponders how she lost her grove supply, and Carrie tries to eat her cake and have it too. In theory there’s nothing wrong with the Carrie storyline, it’s simply a problem with execution. We’ve seen this all before with Carrie, even if we haven’t literally seen the exact plot. There hasn’t been any real change in her character since the end of the series and it’s debatable if she even changed over the course of the show. The acting from the lead four is fine if not spectacular. Unfortunately they’re given absolutely no support from the secondary characters. Steve is the only guy given anything to do, and even then his character is pretty one note. Jennifer Hudson is terrible as Carrie’s assistant. It’s a poorly conceived character and the acting is even worse; she displays none of the talent she showed in Dreamgirls.
The movie is not without its highlights. There are moments when the leads rediscover their chemistry and joke around as before. There are moments where the emotion is earnest instead of overwrought, and that magical aesthetic of bittersweet is recovered. But they’re just moments, not even sequences, and certainly not enough to hang a movie on.
When the movie ended, most of the audience applauded rapturously, eagerly awaiting a sequel. Jennifer, in her infinite wisdom, turned to me and groaned. It was clear that this was her Phantom Menace. We got out of there as fast as we could and, like the gals of Sex, found comfort in a bottle. The movie may have been wanting, but the Pernod was delicious.