IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to talk about the new “Sex and the City” movie without first mentioning "Sex and the City," the HBO series; or the rabid fan devotion it enjoyed; or the equally fervent antipathy (female and male) it inspired on socio-political grounds (sort of like the late-'90s equivalent of not letting your daughter play with Barbies); or the recently much-affirmed straight-male aversion to the series, predicated on cooties. In fact, the film arrives shrouded in such a fog of expectation, preconception, anticipation and (now with more post-Hillary bite!) gender bias that it's hard to see -- or write about -- the movie for the trees.
Which is too bad, because Michael Patrick King, who executive produced the show (with series creator Darren Star) and wrote and directed the movie, has done some brave, surprising things with it, mining territory that's been all but abandoned by Hollywood. It's hard, in fact, to think of any other recent examples of movies that explore the complicated emotional lives of characters comically without stooping to adolescent silliness or that are willing to go to such dark places while remaining a comedy in the Shakespearean sense -- all's well that ends well.
"Sex and the City" can't rightly be called a romantic comedy in the dismal, contemporary sense, though it is at times romantic and is consistently very funny. It's also emotionally realistic, even brutal. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall), now in their 40s and 50s, continue to navigate the choppy waters of urban life, negotiating relationships, work, fertility and friendship, only now the stakes are higher, the risks are bigger and decisions feel more permanent.
For a film that delights in indulging in frivolity at every possible turn, it examines subjects that most movies don't dare graze for their terrifying seriousness. And when it does, the movie handles them with surprising grace, wit and maturity. In other words, it's a movie for grown-ups of all ages. The press and industry screening I attended was uncharacteristically packed with women in their 20s, and my guess is that their interest had zero to do with the inclusion of Jennifer Hudson as Carrie's personal assistant -- though her character, Louise, is likable and allows the writer to expand the scope of the film from a story about four friends living in New York into a tale about the contemporary lives of urban women from early adulthood to maturity.
One of the best things about the movie is how it manages to confound expectations while satisfying them, an achievement for a movie based on material that had already plumbed every aspect of its characters' lives and tied up its narrative loose ends. But some, of course, remained, and that's where the movie takes off -- will Carrie and Big get married, will Charlotte have a baby, will Miranda and Steve live happily ever after, will Samantha be satisfied with just one man?
King answers all of these with unexpected twists, posing a good deal of bigger, more interesting questions along the way. How should women live their lives in a society that constantly limits them while pretending not to? What is the function of forgiveness, and why is it necessary for living?
The clothes, the restaurants, the apartments, the shoes -- they're also all there, of course, but then, even on the show, they were always the fantasy element, the sugar that helped the sometimes harsh emotional reality go down. The movie is no different, except that the personal upheavals are bigger, more life-altering and take on nearly tragic dimensions. Carrie's trajectory throughout the movie is surprisingly difficult, playing out on a much grander scale (at almost 2 1/2 hours), like a 19th century novel with occasional flights into blatant frivolity and lots of designer brand names.
The elephant in the room is the question of whether men will see it. For reasons that seem symptomatic of a much larger and deeper problem, "Sex and the City" seems to have become the movie, pre-release, that no man wants to see or at least admit to wanting to see. Considering the treatment Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has gotten in the press throughout her presidential campaign, this comes as no surprise. As far as big Hollywood movies go, the idea that we might watch movies to empathize with characters whose lives are different from ours but whose humanity links them to us is all but lost.
That's why it feels unnatural to say that what feels most remarkable about the movie is its unapologetic embrace of middle-aged women. (At one point in the movie, the friends get together to celebrate -- shocker! -- Samantha's 50th birthday.) But there you have it: Hollywood, 2008. It's so rare to see women over 30 playing characters other than tough-nuts detectives, bovine moms or angry career women that the fact that Carrie et al. are allowed to be funny, independent, complicated, sexual, cynical and happy still comes across as a delightful surprise.
Fans of the show were willing to overlook whatever silliness or bad column-writing it threw our way as voice-over, because underneath the tutu and Carrie's squealing (spoiler alert: I counted exactly one squeal in the movie; our girl is all growed up) real life was being reflected, a vision of which doesn't require its characters being frozen in amber after a fairy tale ending and allows life to go on, happily and unconventionally.
"Sex and the City." MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity and language. Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes. In wide release.