Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cinderella and Bridezilla

There’s a scene in the new movie Sex and the City, the reunion of the four stars of the popular HBO TV series, in which Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) reads “Cinderella” to the adopted Chinese daughter of her friend Charlotte. Closing the book, Carrie tells the little girl that sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way it does in "Cinderella." Unmoved by Auntie Carrie’s bid for realism, the little girl pipes up, "Again!”

Tell the fairy tale again.

That’s kind of what Sex and the City, the movie, does to its female viewers: tells them "Again!" the fairy tale about the handsome, wealthy prince who rescues the unmarried Manhattan maidens from the doom of spinsterhood.

There’s plenty to object to about the movie: its embarrassing attempt to revive the rampant, thoughtless consumerism it portrayed in the ‘90s – closets full of of Manolo Blahnik shoes, Louis Vuitton handbags, endless Cosmopolitans at chic Manhattan clubs, and now, a Vivienne Westwood wedding gown and a prewar Fifth Avenue penthouse bought with the flick of a checkbook.

It may have been a fun fantasy to imagine that Carrie, who when the series began was a sex columnist for an alternative weekly newspaper, could actually afford all that stuff, including the spacious Manhattan apartment — because as we know, freelancers for alternative weeklies really rake in the dough. (In one episode, Carrie calculates that she spent $40,000 that year on shoes.) But there’s something grotesquely anachronistic about this lusty bacchanalia in 2008, in the climate of foreclosures, food shortages and widespread economic suffering.

The movie’s idea of social consciousness is to have Carrie bestow some of her inexplicable largesse on Louise, played by the adorable Jennifer Hudson, a young black woman Carrie hires as her ultra-efficient personal assistant. Louise, who hails from St. Louis, is so poor she actually has to live with roommates and, unlike the privileged Carrie, has to rent her designer handbags. In gratitude for Louise’s selfless service in organizing her website and her life, Carrie buys Louise a costly Louis Vuitton handbag. “No more rentals!” The racial condescension of this subplot is hard to miss.

Although it indulged in some absurd ideas of glamour, The Sex and the City TV series also had some wryly observed writing about male-female mating behaviors. I remember fondly an episode about a bedmate of Miranda’s who insisted on jumping into the shower immediately after sex (he was Catholic and thought sex was dirty). Or the priceless episode in which Samantha, the sex maniac, found herself falling in love with a man who was, shall we say, inadequately endowed. She finally admitted, during a counseling session with him, that she wasn’t satisfied by his member. After he stormed out, she confided in the woman therapist, “I need a really big dick.” “I hear that!” the therapist chimed in. So funny, and so real.

There’s very little of this kind of realism in the movie version of SATC, which instead partakes of the Cinderella myth that marriage and childbearing are magical formulas for female happiness. Carrie, now a successful authoress, is comfortably involved with the formerly elusive financier Mr. Big (Chris Noth), whose real name, we find out, is just plain John James Preston. After years of his being called only “Big” by Carrie and her friends, it’s a little dispiriting to hear her call him something as prosaic as “John.” But a john he is, in a way. He seems to have little to do in life except spend money on the materialistic and increasingly charmless Carrie, whom he previously spurned many times. He buys her a huge Manhattan penthouse, where they will both live after they are married. He sweetens the deal by having a closet, big enough to house a foreclosed family of five, custom-built to enshrine her ridiculous shoe collection. If that ain’t love, what is? He even completes the Cinderella fantasy by getting on his knees and placing a turquoise Manolo shoe on her delicate pied, caressing her shin like Prince Charming with a foot fetish.

The ditzy, well-meaning Park Avenue princess Charlotte (Kristin Davis, as beautiful as ever) has little to do in the movie, having already found her prince, the bald, plain-faced but utterly devoted Harry (Evan Handler, a good actor underused here), and in the face of infertility, adopted that darling Chinese girl. The men are, in fact, all characterized by one thing: utter devotion. Samantha (Kim Cattrall, as usual better than the material written for her) is stuck out in L.A. with her handsome young beau Smith (Jason Lewis), who is utterly devoted to her, though she’s restless and lusting after the sexy stud who lives next door. Happiness, for Samantha, means not being in a relationship. Steve (David Eigenberg), the dorky husband of corporate lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), is mad for her, though she's kept him out of her bed for months (maybe that annoying speech impediment has something to do with it). He admits to a onetime sexual indiscretion, which nearly ends their marriage, though by movie's end all is forgiven, and presumably poor Miranda, who has escaped back to the paradise of Manhattan, will have to return to the hated borough of Brooklyn.

But as always, Carrie is the centerpiece. She and Big get engaged, which sends Carrie into a whirlwind of narcissistic consumption. It’s the old Father of the Bride trope, in which a planned modest wedding gets swollen into a massively indulgent, expensive affair. Carrie’s editor at Vogue, played by Candace Bergen, offers her a photo spread as a “40-year-old bride,” and so Carrie gets to go all glamour-poo in a series of designer gowns, one of which the designer presents to her as a gift (she is sooo lucky!). Big, already uncomfortable about embarking on what will be his third marriage, gets cold feet and leaves bridezilla Carrie standing, with a bird in her hair, at the altar, in this case in the New York Public Library, which as far as we know, used to be a place for books.

Of course Carrie’s devoted friends are there to pick up the pieces after the Big hurt, and also to accompany her on the non-refundable Mexican honeymoon, which gives screenwriter Michael Patrick King the opportunity to indulge in tasteless Montezuma’s Revenge humor (“Charlotte Poughkeepsie’d in her pants!”) This is just one of many vulgar moments in the script, the others involving a female purse dog owned by Samantha that inexplicably humps designer throw pillows, and such witless putdowns as "I curse the day you were born!", “Shut up, scumbag!” and Samantha's likening of Miranda's shamefully unwaxed bikini line to "the National Forest."

King, the writer, director and producer who admirably stewarded the TV series, is completely at sea with the feature-film format. The movie runs out of steam a third of the way into its two-hour-plus running time, and never quite recovers its energy. It's too bad, because these actresses and actors are good at what they do, and if you were a fan of the series, there is pleasure and comfort in seeing their familiar faces.

If a man leaves you at the altar, it’s a reliable indication that your relationship with him will not work out, ever. And yet, reader, she marries him. A better ending would have had Carrie accepting and enjoying her post-40 singleness; after all, being single is what has defined her through the series, and in her mythical books. But, just as the filmmakers believe their female audience needs to see the Sex and the City girls, even in middle age, strutting about in outlandish clothes, clubbing, drinking bottomless cocktails and swooning at fashion shows, they also believe that women need, and absolutely must have, that damned fairytale ending.

1 comment:

Pike said...

Bravo, Ms Zoslov! :)