Who could have known, 10 years ago, when it first aired on HBO, that Sex and the City would become a cultural phenomenon? And in so many various ways. There's the you-go-girl, gal-pal, sisterhood-is-powerful way. There's the fashionista, Project Runway, you-are-who-you-wear way. And there's the effect that the show seems to have had on the city of New York, bolstering its spirits at a time when Manolo Blahniks would otherwise have been the last thing on its mind. Women swear by the show. Men supposedly swear at it - straight men, anyway. But there's no denying its impact. That Entertainment Weekly just devoted an entire issue to the TV and movie versions is only partially attributable to the fact that the magazine is owned by Time Warner, which also owns Warner Bros., which produced the movie. Still, product placement doesn't get any better than this.
And it doesn't let up in Sex and the City: The Movie, which, like a certain sex columnist's closet, is crammed with name-designer frocks - Vera Wang, Christian Lacroix and Oscar de la Renta, to name but a few. Sarah Jessica Parker, reprising her role as Carrie Bradshaw, fashion-plate-about-town, tries on nearly a hundred outfits during the course of the movie, and she looks resplendently ridiculous in every last one of them, with the possible exception of the Vivienne Westwood wedding gown that she has trouble getting down the aisle in. More about that in a moment, but let's not lose sight of the fact that, in the same way Charlie's Angels was ultimately about hair, Sex and the City was ultimately about clothes. Every week was Fashion Week, a danse macabre of shopping-till-dropping, followed by a soothing round of Cosmopolitans, then another, then another.
It was a lovely fairy tale, one that gets kicked up a notch or three in the movie version, which passes the wretched-excess point early on and just keeps on going. The story that writer-director Michael Patrick King has whipped up, though, is on the sober side, an object lesson in what can happen to a thirtysomething New York princess when she hits 40 without landing a prince. Not that our girls aren't surrounded by princes, but are those really princes or are they frogs? It's been three years since we last saw Carrie, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Samantha (Kim Cattrall) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and they're all pretty much where we left them. Charlotte's happily married and happily everything else. Samantha's out in Los Angeles, practicing the lost art of monogamy. Miranda's stuck in Brooklyn, practicing the lost art of matrimony. And Carrie's ensconced in a Fifth Avenue penthouse, practicing the lost art of co-habitation.
She and Big (a rather tired-seeming Chris Noth) have managed to stay together without us there to cheer them on, in part because Big, who knows his girl, has had built for Carrie not a walk-in closet but a live-in closet. Then one of them utters the "m" word, and here comes the bride - like a runaway train, here comes the bride. The show always had ambivalent feelings about marriage, which was seen as both a nest and a cage. And the movie, if anything, heightens the ambivalence. But Carrie's always wanted the whole ball of wax - great sex, great romance, great husband, great clothes. And when Big's feet start to turn cold, it sends a chill through the movie that feels, to a remarkable degree, like depth. The TV show got deeper and deeper as it rolled along, all that girls-locker-room talk giving way to the loneliness of continuing to wage the dating wars while those around you have either declared victory or admitted defeat.
The movie doesn't quite plumb those depths, although not for lack of trying, and there were several moments when I had to reach for a tissue. What's in shorter supply is that girls-locker-room talk, the over-lunch discussions of, say, the ins and outs of anal sex. Samantha gets off a few good lines, but nothing like the time when she announced, with that regal sangfroid of hers, "I'm dating a guy with the funkiest tasting spunk." Only when Charlotte comes down with a bad case of the please-don't-drink-the-water oopsies in Mexico does the movie hit the delirious lows that the show used to trawl around in. Gone, too, are the show's calypso rhythms, the sense of sashaying down the streets of Manhattan. Where's the theme song, which most of us could play in our sleep?
Small-screen shows rarely translate well to the big screen, and this one does better than most, but instead of the four or five episodes we might have gotten, we get one that's been stretched almost to the breaking point. Charlotte gets short shrift, story-wise, and so does Samantha, who has to keep phoning or flying in from L.A. to remind us she's still fabulous. Miranda's around more, but her problems are old ones. And so are Carrie's, come to think about it. When, oh when, will Big make an honest woman out of her? None of this matters, of course, as the ladies take Manhattan yet again, leaving their marks all over the place. Desperate Housewives, Cashmere Mafia, Lipstick Jungle - it's hard to imagine any of these without our ab-fab four leading the way. Thanks to them, neither sex nor the city will ever be quite the same.