Saturday 22 May 2010

From the archives: "Sex and the City"

[In what I hesitate to describe as anticipation of the sequel, which opens next Friday.]

I should, before anything else, register a conflict of (dis)interest: I saw about seven minutes of the pilot of the TV Sex and the City before switching off, thus sparing myself six seasons' worth of twitter about handbags, orgasms and penis size. Of all the HBO shows over the past decade that deserved one last, feature-length hurrah to tie up their few remaining loose ends - and you think of Oz, The Sopranos maybe, Deadwood especially - it's dismaying to think we should have ended up with this. Fans of the show should feel free to disregard everything that follows - for no other film this year will pander so wilfully to a pre-existing audience; the experience of watching it is like going over to a friend's house to watch several hours of a SATC boxset - but it struck me as useful, amongst all the puff and PR hype (the film is "a classic", according to Radio One DJ Edith Bowman), to put across an opposing point of view. After all, if four million people watch the show in the UK, that still leaves over fifty million of us who don't.

First of all, I can see why women might be drawn to the movie Sex and the City: aside from its upbeat, unequivocally escapist celebration of a particular lifestyle, the franchise would appear to be founded on female friendships that are almost incredibly forgiving and unbitchy. Each of the four characters can learn something from the other three; they can take turns to lean on one another when shoulders, padded or otherwise, are required. Fans will surely warm to a long sequence at the heart of the film where Carrie is coaxed out of a romantic depression by Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. (This show of feminine solidarity is only slightly undermined by the persistent rumours coming off set, and the four actresses' apparent unwillingness to be photographed together when they're not being paid for it.)

It concerns me not whether the show's women are drag queens, gay men in disguise, as has been mooted (it's a franchise that strives to make a virtue out of the business of people in closets), nor does it bother me unduly that the male characters (even the Mister Rights) are, to a man, impossibly dull and colourless. At the start of the film, Carrie is engaged to a construction worker, by the looks of things, and Samantha engaged with a vapid blonde stripper. (There are your closeted gay characters, right there: the straight men in Sex and the City could, with a little more spark about them, form their own Village People tribute act.)

The problem is this: none of it is remotely cinematic. The "film", such as it is, is shot like a TV show, written like a TV show (sketches, linked mainly by Carrie's voiceover; a liability in a two-hour-plus work, particularly one where everything stops an hour and forty-five minutes in so the characters can sit down and watch a fashion show), and performed like a TV show. Of course, if you're a fan of that TV show, again, none of this will matter, but I was reminded of Homer's comment in last year's The Simpsons Movie, which at least tried to fill the bigger screen with its camera perspectives and jokes of scale: "I can't believe there are suckers who would pay to see this when they can see it for free at home."

Even the costumes that were reportedly such a part of the show's appeal aren't made noticeably more flamboyant by the upgrade to the multiplex, though they come with cameos from fashion-world hangers-on, who prove in the main so anonymous they have to shamble on clasping their own monogrammed luggage in the hope of being recognised. (Thank you, "Andre Leon Talley", whoever the heck you are.) This is a curious oversight, as almost every other scene ends with somebody buying something: a dress, an engagement ring, an apartment. The film has a credit card statement where its heart should be; its moral, ultimately, is that money can't buy you love, but it can get you a whole lot else besides.

The bigger question here is whether we need this sort of thing during the moment of the deepest recession the West has faced for several decades, at a time when the majority of viewers are finding it increasingly hard to find two brass farthings (current market value: half a farthing each) to rub together. (The film is comical in its avoidance of consumer realities: we see Carrie has a copy of New York magazine, its headline "When Will The Real Estate Bubble Burst?", on her coffee table, but it's to Vogue, and an article on herself, she reaches for.) The romantic comedy has always been aspirational as a genre, but Sex and the City goes beyond that to become genuinely, alarmingly grasping and avaricious: it promotes a lifestyle only a Hollywood megastar like Sarah Jessica Parker could afford, encourages Christian Lacroix spending on a Primark budget.

I tried to find something to like about the film, some supporting turn, some moment in the dialogue, anything either funny or sexy, but I came up with nothing. In this money-grubbing context, a clip of Judy Garland singing "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis just looks like cross-promotion for the Time-Warner back catalogue, while Charlotte's cute-as-a-button, adopted Asian daughter appeared to be being touted, somewhat less than adorably, as this season's must-have accessory for uptown girls, a Third World brooch, as previously seen on the lapels of Madonna and Angelina Jolie.

It's on dodgy ground indeed whenever it leaves the boutiques behind. To deal with the franchise's whiteness, Carrie hires as her secretary Jennifer Hudson, really cashing in on her Dreamgirls cachet by getting to take dictation for an hour or so; she gets a handbag for her troubles, which may or may not be a step up from forty acres and a mule. And we're supposed to find it charming when all Charlotte's fears about the filthiness of Mexico are proved right with a loud case of the squits. Ah, poo gags and throwaway racism: together at last. This, then, is what a million-dollar movie budget gets you these days: gaudy, tasteless, glossily pernicious, pro-Botox, pro-waxing propaganda, a projection of women at their most synthetic. I just don't buy it.

Mike McCahill
May 28, 2008.

* Read the best printed review of the film yet - with the single greatest headline of any review this year, if not this decade - here:

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