Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Sex and the City Conundrum

The biggest problem with Sex and the City is that it is not really a natural continuation of the series. The series, as it was, ended the stories of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte about as perfectly and—this is key—true to the characters as it possibly could. The filmmakers then face a unique challenge: people love these characters and love how their lives turned out, so in making a feature film, do they rock the boat or just give the fangirls (and fangays) (and me) what they want?

The obvious answer—the only answer that would result in an honest, surprising film that truly expanded on and enlightened the lives of these wonderful characters—is “rock the boat”! The answer that series executive producer and film writer/director Michael Patrick King went with is: a little of both.

Not even Carrie could have her cake and eat it, too.

Word is that King had an entirely different draft written when the initial plans were to shoot the movie right after the series ended in 2004. Perhaps that would have been a more natural flow for the story and characters back then than this current film is now. But after the project faced more setbacks than Carrie and Big’s tumultuous relationship, King was forced to rewrite the script for a film that could logically take place four years after the series closed. And there are perfectly good roads to take these characters down…it’s just that King seems hesitant to take them there—a decision that is deadly for the film’s dramatic structure.

King, who was about as good as it comes as a short form writer, is just that—a short form writer. As a feature writer, he doesn’t really have a clue how to tell a long story with true forward momentum. Each segment of the film plays like an episode or piece of an episode—a central idea is introduced, then it is paid off a few minutes later. There is connective tissue among these vignettes—the overarching theme of the picture is, as the advertisements indicate, “forgiveness”—but King can’t adequately weave them all together in a seamless, naturally flowing way.

Or perhaps King is a fine long form writer whose biggest err is pandering to the series’ legions of fans. Because for all the central narrative issues this film has going on, nearly all of them exist for one nagging reason: they are redundant for these characters. Miranda has an emotional wall; Charlotte wants a baby; Samantha is tempted by hot men; Carrie wants commitment from Mr. Big…these are the central conflicts these characters face in the film, with one or two slight tweaks (that I will not give away) that are supposed to make the issues interesting, but still cannot make them original. King pits these conflicts as epic challenges to each woman’s soul (save Charlotte, who really doesn’t do anything other than smile and show support throughout the entire film), but in reality they are just broken-record retreads of the characters’ biggest hurdles throughout SATC’s six seasons—and on the show, when these conflicts were given room to breathe, they actually made emotional sense. Even with a 2-hour 15-minute running time, Sex and the City still manages to short-shrift each woman’s story—even Carrie’s, if only because she is given about three different story arcs to navigate. So not only are the conflicts on recycled autopilot, they are also so quickly and busily rushed together that they don’t work as drama.

On the positive end, the actors are all truly wonderful. Even when their stories aren’t working, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall, and Kristin Davis shine both together and apart. And it’s great to see almost all of the major recurring actors from the series—David Eigenberg, Jason Lewis, Evan Handler, Willie Garson, Mario Cantone, and of course, Chris “Big” Noth—on the big screen. Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson joins the cast as Carrie’s assistant, and she brings her usual sassy energy to the film. Of course, the acting was never going to be the issue for this movie—the performances are usually the last thing to go wrong with any motion picture, and would never cause problems with actors this good. Everything that is wrong with Sex and the City: The Movie lies at the script level. And of course, with a writer as good at witty dialogue and as familiar with the characters as King, there are some truly sterling moments in this film, from beginning to end. But the core of the story doesn’t allow any of the characters to truly learn anything new…to truly grow.

In her review, K pretty much covered the conflicted role of fan vs. critic as well as it could be covered, so I have tried my best to stay away from being too repetitive. But as a die-hard fan of the series, one who anticipated this film more than any other summer release, and one who truly came to know and love these characters, I will steal K’s sentiments directly: it was wonderful to spend time catching up with old friends. Truly, truly wonderful. And for that, I loved the film. But as one who understands and appreciates the art of writing, who cherishes the craft of storytelling, and who knows—as most SATC fans likely do—the innate challenges and progressions these characters could (should) face, I must view the film as just another enduring keepsake of the series, one that holds the characters in stasis, thereby not creating any new drama and keeping them from any meaningful growth.


K McKiernan said...

But even though it did not meet our expectations in a number of ways, it was truly a wonderful event... us, in that packed theater after midnight, hands diving in inappropriate foods, grinning from ear to ear.

That was real movie going excitement. I do not remember being that anxious and thrilled to be seeing a movie.... in a long long time.

And, with all its flaws, I want to see it again... I really want these people in my life.

So, so glad you fell in love with the show too, my love, so we could experience that night together.

J McKiernan said...

Yeah, I remember it fondly. And I had a great time. I thought about describing that scene at the start of my review--utterly PACKED house, an excited buzz filling the room, the crowd cheering as the lights went down, cheering even louder at the pink-tinged New Line Cinema logo appeared on the screen with the opening beats of the Sex and the City theme song playing over it. It was FUN...I LOVED it. And I loved sharing it with you.

In fact, you were more negative about the film as we left than I was...and I sort of wanted to write a quick review that night when we returned, at something like 2:45am. But I didn't...

I loved the film as you did--a reunion with characters I love. And I took issue with the same things you took issue with...I think the film's story flaws are glaring for anyone who understands screenwriting and has a history with the show. And in this particular discussion, I let my analytical fingers get to typing hard and fast. This was more just an analysis of the film's screenplay than a review of the experience, since I sort of felt you already covered that angle. But I did try to note at the end of my review that it will stand indelibly as a landmark of the show, and I will cherish it for giving me another 2 hours with these characters.