Has Sarah Jessica Parker forgotten how to walk into a room? In "Sex and the City," the two-and-a-half-hour movie version of the late, lamented television series, she can't even enter her own apartment without self-consciously arranging her gaunt, ropy frame in the doorway, tilting her head at just the right angle, gazing dreamily into the middle distance as if the secrets of the universe -- or just those of uptown -- could be found there. When Parker first took on the role of the exceptionally successful (and exceptionally fictional) sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, in the late '90s, she was a refreshingly unself-conscious presence, a little bit gangly and all the more likable for it. By the time the series ended, in 2004, she'd become its diminutive diva, the Manolo'd sun queen around whom the other central members of the cast -- Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall and Kristin Davis -- dutifully revolved. The latter Carrie is the one we get in this padded push-up version of "Sex and the City." She's a half-pint Norma Desmond: Every time she does something as simple as walk through a doorway, she's announcing, "I'm ready for my closeup."
I loved Parker, and I loved "Sex and the City," for most of the show's six-year run. The series' detractors decried it as an insulting and retrograde depiction of modern, single urban women. But viewing the show so narrowly is like applying social-realist standards to Fred Astaire movies. At its best, the show was wonderfully conceived and executed farce; each episode, at under 30 minutes, was a perfectly satisfying petit four. "Sex and the City" was sophisticated not because of its depiction of New York as a world of expensive handbags and shoes but in spite of it: Looking back on the series, and on the way it could so often be both breezy and sharp, I can see it more clearly as a grandchild of the jazz age, a cocktail laced with the spirit of Anita Loos.
It didn't hurt that the show also happened to feature gifted, great-looking actresses who were attuned to their characters and who, at least until the show began limping into its final seasons, complemented one another marvelously. They've all returned for this big-screen version, and here and there, the picture captures the gleam, and the sharpness, of the series. But its writer and director, Michael Patrick King (who also worked on numerous episodes of the show), overpacks the movie with everything but style: The result is a fat, misshapen valise that's a betrayal of the trim, elegant lines of the original show.
"Sex and the City" opens with a montage that tells the uninitiated almost everything they might need to know about the four main characters and their dovetailing relationships: Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is the wide-eyed charmer who has always believed in true love and who finally found it with a bald lawyer named Harry (the wonderful Evan Handler, who, unfortunately, has only a few small scenes in the movie); Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), the accomplished lawyer who's ruled by intellect, not by emotion, and who has tentatively, almost grudgingly, taken a stab at domestic happiness by marrying Steve (David Eigenberg), the father of her child; Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the swinging single who has finally settled down and moved to Los Angeles with the hunky actor, Smith (Jason Lewis), who adores her; and Parker's Carrie, who, over the years, has suffered through numerous breakups and makeups with the financial wheeler-dealer formerly known only as Mr. Big (Chris Noth), whom we now know is named John, although no one calls him that.
Now, it seems, Carrie has found a comfortable kind of happiness with this highly unreliable guy. Together they buy a gorgeous fantasy apartment (with its floor-to-ceiling windows, the thing looks as if it's been lovingly transported, floor plank by floor plank, from Paris). Or, rather, Big has bought it for them to live in together, a decision that Carrie, used to her independence even as she desires emotional security, isn't entirely comfortable with. Still, she sells her own place so she can pour some funds into the new one; she and Big decide, in a rather businesslike fashion, to marry.
What follows is a maelstrom of betrayals, pigheadedness, confusion of all varieties (emotional, intellectual and sexual) and the occasional small, or even big, ray of happiness. There's lust and frustration in Hollywood, heartache and incontinence in Mexico. In a broad sense, the movie follows the template of the shows -- particularly as they were conceived the last few seasons -- adding dashes of raunchy humor and saucy dialogue to meandering story lines that deal with the travails of love and sex. But too many of the situations here feel forced and manufactured: When Steve and Miranda encounter a problem that stems, partly, from their stalled sex life, Miranda behaves in a way that's at first somewhat believable and later only makes her seem heartless and immature, and which drags on through the whole movie. That's a disservice to the character, who was always the prickliest of the four women, but whose conscientiousness and kindness would always find their way to the fore. Samantha, meanwhile, is frustrated by her relationship with Smith: The sex is great, but he's working so hard that he's not around much. In the scene where she finally loses her cool, Smith -- always the sweet-natured and considerate if possibly not-too-bright male beauty -- responds with an indifference that's wholly uncharacteristic, considering he's the kind of guy who remembers the couple's five-year anniversary while Samantha has completely forgotten it.
Admittedly, it's harder to get away with lapses like that when you're dealing with characters that a large part of your potential audience feel they already know. Then again, why mangle perfectly good characters for the sake of your plot? The psychodrama between Carrie and Big, which looms over the movie like an oppressive mushroom cloud, does play out in a way that's true to both their characters. But King takes far too long to get to the point. What's more, the movie's second and third bananas -- played by appealing actors like Willie Garson, Mario Cantone and the aforementioned Handler -- have almost nothing to do. King rustles together a quickie romance for two of his minor characters, but the thing is so amateurly taped together (and so minor) that you wonder why he even bothered.
"Sex and the City" does offer a few slender pleasures, most of which come from getting the chance to watch its star actresses work together again. Charlotte is the happiest of the four women, and because she has virtually no complaints about her life (she and Harry have adopted an adorable little Chinese girl, who causes some mayhem by playing with Carrie's sparkly cellphone), there's little for her character to do except offer her usual perky, and often brilliantly non-sequiturish, rejoinders. Davis is fun to watch here: Charlotte was often written off as the dullest, most conventional character on the show, but I always found her characterization perfect, a mix of high-society sweetie-pie and innocent farm girl, and she gives us more of the same here.
Nixon faces the roughest task of all the actresses here. In the movie's story line, Miranda is so unyielding that Nixon doesn't get to stretch much: Her unrepentant bitchiness seems less like an understandable human failing than a writer's conceit, which she's forced to stretch beyond its limits. Her performance comes to feel repetitive and shrill.
But no one here is more disappointing, or more frustrating, than Parker. Some of what goes wrong here isn't her fault: The movie's costumes have, once again, been scrounged up by the dread Patricia Field, who puts poor Carrie into a series of god-awful designer mishmashes that might have been tolerable on the small screen but that scream down at us like banshees from the big one. At first my date thought Carrie's dream wedding get-up (a Vivienne Westwood concoction that resembles Richard Dreyfuss' mashed-potato mountain in "Close Encounters," topped off with -- no lie -- a dead bird for a headdress) was an intentional joke, a nod to Elsa Lanchester in "Bride of Frankenstein." (It wasn't.) Later, Carrie ventures out alone on New Year's Eve in a silver sequined beanie that makes her look like a reject from the Sun Ra Arkestra. No actress, not even one with as trim a figure as Parker's, can survive these fashion horrors.
The writing doesn't serve Parker particularly well, either. Because Carrie is a very busy, very successful, but very disorganized New York writer, she decides she needs an assistant. The woman she hires, Louise (Jennifer Hudson, who gives a likable, openhearted performance), turns out to be a godsend to her. I'm sure the intention was to add a nonwhite character to the mix, and that's not a bad impulse -- especially if you were to imagine a smart, capable, witty black woman holding her own at the brunch table. (Not to mention the fact that even a fantasy vision of New York with so few characters of color is, in 2008, simply incomprehensible.)
But why make your only adult character of color a wise, capable servant girl? Carrie spends too much time beaming magnanimously at Louise. The effect, unintentional but not dismissible, is a kind of "Mammy, what would I ever do without you?" superiority. (Carrie also gives Louise, as a gift, one of the most hideous bags this side of colostomy paraphernalia.)
But Parker is to blame for the self-consciousness of her performance. She spends much of the movie swanning, not acting: Nearly every movement, every gesture, seems conceived for the benefit of the camera, as opposed to the truth of the character. In a scene where Carrie poses for a Vogue fashion shoot in an assortment of designer wedding gowns (the pictures also appeared in the real-life Vogue), she takes to the role of self-centered bride all too readily. Her self-absorption becomes part of the plot, minimally, but it's barely addressed, except as part of the movie's perfunctory overall lesson plan.
Parker has a few wonderful moments, scenes in which she forgets she's a big star and acts like a woman who doesn't know she's being watched: There are sequences where she tosses off her lines with her old, casual verve, and she's terrific in one of her more serious scenes, in which, via cellphone, she talks a jittery pre-wedding Mr. Big down from his tree. But Parker isn't the real star of the movie, anyway: Kim Cattrall, as Samantha, carries its best moments with ease. The gags she's given aren't just double entendres; they're practically doubled over backward with innuendo. But Cattrall treats their broadness as good, clean fun: When the four women try to censor up their usual randy chatter so Charlotte's young daughter won't pick up any naughty words, and swap the word "coloring" for "sex," Samantha gets the inevitable joke about using "every crayon in the box." But her sly twinkle -- and her acceptance of how silly and raunchy the line is -- makes it funny. Later, when a severely depressed Carrie musters the energy to make a wisecrack, Samantha gives her a wink and coos, "Oh honey! You made a little joke!" The moment is sweet for the way it shows Samantha's refusal to let Carrie wallow in her self-pity, even as she recognizes that her friend is in a great deal of emotional pain. The show was at its best when it offered, without a great deal of extraneous examination, these glimpses into the nature of friendships between women. The movie needs more of that. But at least we've got Samantha, with that irrepressible tiger in her tank, to help keep the motor running.