There’s a telling moment in Sex and the City when Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) reaches into a heap of magazines to retrieve a Vogue that depicts her in a glossy spread as “The Last Single Girl.” On the way, she shoves aside a copy of New York magazine whose cover asks in ominous black letters, “When Will the Real Estate Bubble Burst?”
An intentional irony? Probably not. But amid the none-too-glamorous realities of recession, it’s harder than before to get caught up in the sparkly, bubbly, glittery, über-girly world that is Carrie’s New York. This is a movie where the heroine’s dream man shows his love by outfitting their magnificent new Fifth Avenue penthouse with a closet the size of your average studio apartment. Where a fortysomething white Manhattan writer/socialite and a twentysomething African-American computer whiz from St. Louis (Jennifer Hudson) bond over their shared love of Louis Vuitton handbags. Where sizeable quantities of screen time are devoted to trying on clothes and buying and remodeling real estate. No doubt about it, Michael Patrick King’s film version of the HBO series (which he frequently wrote and directed) is selling fantasy, and fantasy looks good on the big screen. But it’s hard not to suspect that, in a few years, old episodes of “Sex and the City” will look as baroque and outdated as “Dynasty.”
In between all the shopping and preening, there is a plot. Fans of the series will recall that at the end of its six-year run, Carrie finally bagged the elusive Mr. Big, archetype of the Guy Who Won’t Commit. The film’s opening finds them happy together, which of course means something will go wrong. And it does. But, in true stale-romantic-comedy fashion, Carrie’s relationship catastrophe boils down to a contretemps that might have been averted by a cellphone in the right place at the right time. Soon she’s moping around in sweats with no makeup, a condition her friends interpret as dire, verging on suicidal. People who haven’t seen the show may be mystified by this wet-noodle behavior. But even those who know why Carrie is so reluctant to trust the charming Big may wish she had an ounce of the gumption of her friend Samantha (Kim Cattrall), and could simply bark at her lover, “Enough already!”
As a show, “Sex and the City” was many things to many people: Any given episode might offer a smattering of broad comedy, serious drama, explicit raunch, pop-feminist social commentary, Cinderella dreams, sophisticated bons mots and Borscht Belt one-liners. Viewers who didn’t like whimsical waif Carrie could identify with her polar opposite, the cerebral, cynical Miranda (Cynthia Nixon). Or they could simply enjoy the comic stylings of Cattrall as Samantha and Kristin Davis as Charlotte, both breathing new life into old Hollywood stereotypes (the brassy broad and the breathless ingenue, respectively).
It’s great to see the quartet together again on the big screen, and some of their repartee has that old snap. But the movie is centered on Carrie, and her voice-over is full of bad puns and Hallmark sentiments such as, “In some families, fairy tales really do come true.” (The script has some more clever moments: Playing the editor of Vogue, Candice Bergen delivers an archly devastating line about how photos of an over-40 woman in a wedding dress bear an “unintended Diane Arbus subtext.”)
Though Carrie’s friends have their own problems and storylines — Charlotte, not so much — they feel underdeveloped, almost extraneous. Samantha’s story is played for naughtiness and belly laughs until it reaches a conclusion that is, in the context of this movie, surprisingly mature. Even in a world of Botox and pretty-princess fantasies, Cattrall reminds us, aging mortals eventually have to face their limitations — not just sagging flesh, but the force of personality and habit. You can try on as many outrageous designer outfits as you want, but somehow you stay the same person underneath. That’s where retail therapy stops and the real sets in.