Smile Politely

It’s Hard to Hate Sex and The City

Have you ever been to a party and hovered awkwardly around a group of the party-goers, trying to engage in the conversation but feeling completely left behind, without anything resembling a frame of reference by which to understand the particulars of language, gestures, euphemisms, and the very subjects of their talk? That’s what Sex and the City: The Movie was for me. While watching it, I felt excluded, like I was standing at a party to which I was not invited: not bored, really, just uncomfortable.

The reaction in the media to Sex and the City reminded me much of Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Here was a surprisingly huge hit that was critically panned, with subsequent accusations that mainstream film criticism is inherently biased: few are women, probably less are black. In both cases, the argument is rather convincing. How can crudely filmed and constructed R-rated romantic comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Knocked Up win unanimous praise while similar films like Sex and the City and Diary of a Mad Black Woman get universally panned? The common denominators seem to be the white male in the former films and the “other” (whether black or female) in the latter. Looking at the genders and pasty white complexions of Roger Ebert, Peter Travers, et al., maybe the majority of reviewers don’t “get” these comedies because they simply can’t relate.

Based on this convincing argument, I’ve been trying to hold back any serious critical contemplation of Sex and the City in recognition of my own potential biases. The film, perhaps, speaks a language I just don’t understand because I haven’t had my whole life to be initiated into it. It is (at the moment, at least) outside my realm of understanding and therefore any attempt to critique it negatively would be roughly equivalent to dismissing Tolstoy because I can’t read Russian. There are, however, a few factors which have convinced me that it would not be unfair to address the film critically. First of all, the film is directed by Michael Patrick King, who is by all accounts male (you can start an argument about gender and sexuality here if you like, and I’ll admit to simplifying this argument for the sake of conciseness). Secondly, after watching the film I happened to catch a few rerun episodes of the show on which it is based — and I liked them, whereas I did not like the film.

There’s something different about the film, with its lack of any hint of urban cynicism (privileging instead the hyperbolically romantic), its omnipresent product placement, its epic running length (147 minutes, expanded to a longer running length on the new DVD). It is a romantic comedy, and it delves straight into familiar and rather boring rom-com tropes, rarely stopping to remind itself that it is supposed to be a comedy about sex and (in) the city. Too eager to catch us up on the lives of its four protagonists, it rambles on for two-and-a-half hours, even adding a rather pointless fifth character (Jennifer Hudson) whose purpose is to remind Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) about the centrality of LOVE (yes, in caps) in any woman’s life — and about how delicious a Starbucks Mocha Frappucino® is.

The main crisis of Sex and the City — that Big (Chris Noth) stands up Carrie at their wedding — wanders in and out of the meandering film, as Carrie waits an entire year before she talks to the regretful Big again. Of course, this extreme length of time seems necessitated by narrative needs and not by the characters’ actions. Not wanting to turn Big into a villain, the film does too much to explain why he never shows up at the altar, so that Carrie’s year of silence seems a bit much. A year and well over an hour of screen time is too long to dedicate to resolving an incidental problem caused by Charlotte’s (Kristin Davis) daughter’s kleptomania: she steals Carrie’s phone, Carrie never gets the desperate calls from Big explaining his nervousness. To make sure that the narrative stays open so that we can tediously explore the love lives of all four characters, the writers have Carrie throw her cell phone in the Gulf of Mexico and change her number, even when she sees she has several messages. How convenient.

When I observed this problem to my girlfriend when we watched the film, she thought I was being too easy on Big, and indeed this might be my male bias. But I think it’s more a flaw in the film: it is too easy on Big! His redemption doesn’t mean much if he was a victim of circumstance more than Carrie was a victim of his malice. The romantic comedy narrative of reconciliation and marriage has rarely seemed so drawn-out or under-motivated.

When my thoughts reach this point, however, I return to what I started with: the reading of this narrative impetus can vary, and it seems like it was as compelling for millions of women as it wasn’t for male critics. This consideration might just rend the argument of the previous two paragraphs asunder, reducing my learned criticism to a couple of sarcastic remarks about product placement and romanticism. Anyway, Sex and the City is on DVD today, so watch out.

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