A lot of people underestimated Sex and the City during its six-season run. You can see why. The fabulous fashion! The fabulous careers! The fabulous orgasms! The fabulous ratings! All that fabulousness couldn’t possibly mean anything serious, could it?

In fact, the television show’s depiction of the frustrations and cruelties of the overclass marriage market was wickedly smart. At its best—which admittedly was never a sure thing—Sex and the City was post-feminist Edith Wharton, a tour of the status anxiety of smart young women who could no longer count on a WASP hierarchy or a college admissions dean to preselect suitable mates. The writers were forever undercutting the characters’ illusions about their liberated lives; in the end, these high-achieving, independent thirtysomethings—even the ever-horny Samantha—were mostly in search of men worthy of their fabulous selves. Thus the Harvard-educated corporate lawyer Miranda’s ambivalence about Steve, the lowly bartender and father of her baby, whom she finally marries. And the Smith grad and walking Ralph Lauren mannequin Charlotte, who divorces her outmoded WASP husband before marrying the more up-to-date striver, Harry, an ambitious Jewish lawyer. And most famously, Carrie, who pined for Mr. Big—a name meant only half ironically—even while engaged to the down-market Aidan, a hippieish furniture maker.

Alas, the show’s detractors will find vindication in the movie version of the series arriving on Friday. Sex and the City, the movie, has the same characters, the same actors—with the exception of Jennifer Hudson as Carrie’s salt-of-the-earth assistant—and even some of the same apartments, but it’s the series on a Magnolia-cupcake sugar high. Declawed, de-acidified, it turns into precisely what the series’ original creators would have gagged at: a conventional romantic summer movie. In the opening credits of the TV show, the pleased-as-punch, fashion-forward Carrie gets splashed by a New York City bus—symbolizing the characters’ inevitable comeuppance in each episode. In the movie, though, there is no splashing.

The film’s cutesy, formulaic opening lines hint at what is coming. New York is filled with twentysomethings, Carrie muses in her trademark voiceover, “in search of the 2 L’s: labels and love.” Four years have passed since we last saw the girls, who are now in fortysomething territory. Not to worry. Carrie writes for Vogue and also has three megahit books to her name. She is still tight with Mr. Big, who buys a palatial penthouse in which he builds her a closet so cavernous it’s like the state of Delaware with mirrors. Miranda, still living in Brooklyn with Steve and their son, is having major problems with work-family balance—though she does seem to have time for lunch with her friends. Charlotte continues to float around her Park Avenue apartment, while tending to her adopted child and her husband Harry—and eating with her girlfriends. Samantha is vamping around Malibu with her actor boy-toy, Smith, but she too manages to show up for the Manhattan get-togethers.

Still, even if the girls’ friendship is just about fairy-tale perfect, the course of true overclass love never did run smooth, especially in a two-and-a-half-hour-long movie. There are breakups, misunderstandings, and a humiliating betrayal, which introduces a surprising melancholy to the film. Yet Michael Patrick King, the film’s director and screenwriter, doesn’t trust his audience with the unexpected down time. He doles out glamour at such furious speed that it feels like Ritalin for an audience suffering from fashion ADD. If the girls have more to learn about love, they will take their lessons in a stunning Mexican resort, a Malibu beach house, and picture-perfect New York City. A bridal fashion shoot binges so excessively on lavish gowns by top-name designers that you start considering moving to Cuba. (Patricia Field, back as fashion director for the film, estimates that there were over 300 clothing changes for the four women.) The contrast with the series is telling. Back then, when Charlotte asked her friends to look through bridal magazines with her, Miranda gagged: “Kill me, please. Just take a sharp object and drag it across my throat.” In the movie, when Carrie appears in a Cinderella gown by Vivienne Westwood, Miranda gets the hackneyed tears in her eyes.

The film does offer some pleasures other than empty-caloried eye candy. Parker, badly miscast as Ms. Prim in recent movie appearances like The Family Stone, is touchingly vulnerable, even raw at moments; this, along with her model’s body, was always the source of Carrie’s appeal. Though her opportunities here are few, Kim Cattrall still knows how to do broad comedy in the vein of other great babe comediennes like Carole Lombard. Still, these virtues fail to rescue a movie trapped in generic chick-flick dilemmas: Can he commit? Can she find it in her heart to forgive? Has she become more interested in the wedding than in the groom?

Yes, good cinema can be made from these dilemmas. But lacking the urbane and witty realism that made the series television gold, Sex and the City is simultaneously sentimental love story and starry-eyed liberation fantasy. It’s not giving too much away to say that toward the end of the movie, the girls celebrate Samantha’s birthday. Though a breast-cancer survivor and on the verge of becoming what was once euphemistically known as “a full figure gal,” Samantha has recently decided to continue her sexual adventuring. “Fifty and fabulous!” toasts Carrie. And there isn’t a bus or a puddle in sight.


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