Saturday, June 7, 2008

Chic Flick: Sex And The City

I am a smoking hot female who goes to Star Trek conventions. I am a black guy who quotes Seinfeld. I am a nun who has all of Eli Roth’s torture-porn flicks on DVD and watches them, you guessed it, religiously. Or I might as well be. Because I, Jason Bellamy, am a straight guy who likes Sex And The City, and – according to some reviews and recent blog chatter – that makes me as unusual as a photo of Matthew McConaughey with his shirt on.

I find this strange. After all, Sex the movie is based on a TV series that thrived for six seasons on HBO and now can be caught in (significantly edited) syndication on TBS. Yes, the show’s audience initially was limited to those with expanded cable, but with an evening air-time its potential viewership was far more diverse than that of a daytime soap, normally the domain of the stay-at-home mom. Men had ample opportunity to become fans of the show, and presumably some of us did. Why wouldn’t we? Here was a show about four attractive females who were often obsessed with sex and talked about it frequently and frankly. Sex was like the aforementioned Seinfeld, except from an R-rated and female perspective, with some nudity thrown in for good measure. What was not to like?

Admittedly, I’m speaking from marginal experience. As one of those without HBO, my exposure to the show during its 1998-2004 run was limited to a few peeks here and there – maybe seeing two episodes start-to-finish in hotel rooms while traveling. Sacrilegious though it is, I’ve seen more of Sex in its sliced-diced-and-dubbed format on TBS, finding the show to be agreeable background accompaniment to household chores. Clearly the show never overwhelmed me to the point of becoming must-see entertainment, yet I always found it entertaining.

Apparently some, though, found the show to be a chore. Over at Scanners, Jim Emerson said he had “no objection” to the new movie, but only after offering: “sadly, nobody has enough money to pay me to go see Sex and the City.” That’s a pretty heavy statement, and it echoed Roger Ebert, who more or less disclosed that he reviewed the film only as a job requirement. In message boards and comments sections across the blogosphere, many defended Sex and were elated about the film, yet at least as many regarded the movie with a lack of fondness usually reserved for a colonoscopy.

That not everyone finds Sex to be their cup of tea is no problem for me. There’s a new Adam Sandler movie out this week and, no, I won’t be seeing it. We all have our own tastes. In her Sex review, the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday put it this way: “Think of the clothes, shoes and accessories simply as the movie's version of Iron Man's robot suit, Speed Racer's cars or Indiana Jones’s fedora and bullwhip. And judge not others' escapist fetishes lest ye be judged.” Indeed. But about those clothes, shoes and accessories: As much as Sex’s couture obsession may characterize the series, I’ve never found the fashion to be the brand’s dominant characteristic. That’s why Hornaday’s take is so astute. True, Indiana Jones wouldn’t be Indiana Jones without the whip, yet the whip doesn’t make the man.

Try explaining that though to the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick, who admitted that his screening of Sex enjoyed an “ecstatic” response and yet still concluded that heterosexual males will be “bored by the movie’s endless fashion montages, shameless product placements, lethally slow pacing and utterly predictable plot.” Hmm. Seems to me, those same words could apply to last year’s Transformers, but even though the target audience for that Michael Bay film was obviously young men, I don’t remember a lot of reviews pronouncing unequivocally that women would be bored. And I wonder: Could a female critic be so forward to say, as Ebert and Emerson did with Sex, “I am not the person to review this movie,” and still keep her job? I doubt it.

I’m skeptical about the last part because, as we know, movies are predominantly made by men, about men and for men. I’m not going to spend any time getting into a moral debate about that here, I’m just acknowledging the truth. And so in my mind that’s part of what makes Sex so interesting. I can’t speak with great detail about the show, but in the film the male characters are as undeveloped as the sperm they carry. Chris Noth’s coveted Mr. Big is, in the words of Ebert, “so unreal, he verges on the surreal.” Quite true. In my limited exposure to the character I’ve never understood Carrie’s fascination with him (is “Big” a reference to what I think it is?), unless it’s his insistence on wearing collared attire at all times, even to bed. Then there’s Evan Handler’s Harry, a bald bubble of cheeriness and affection. And Jason Lewis’ Smith, all smiles and sex appeal. David Eigenberg’s Steve is granted a few whiny emotions, but other than that these men are … well, like objects, props, scenery. Now, where have we seen that before?

Oh, that’s right, it happens to women in movies all the time. That’s why it’s nice to see men put in the corner for a change. Sex bashers often say that they don’t know people who dress like Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) or who are guided through life by their vagina like Samantha (Kim Cattrall). Or they criticize the characters for their self-absorption, their penchant for partying and their materialism. Fine. But I don’t remember hearing such complaints about the gangsters in Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino movies. Characters achieve genuineness based on whether they fit into their world of reality, not ours. I find myself drawn to Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) because they have such a good time together, not because I admire them or their fashions (honestly, I didn’t know what the fuck a “Manolo” was until seemingly every critic felt the need to mention Carrie’s obsession with the designer shoes).

All of that said, I think Sex’s good times are better delivered in small doses. At 148 minutes, Sex the movie is overlong, particularly as an addendum to the TV series. In your average film, Carrie’s entire relationship with Big would carry out over two hours. Here, instead, we get just one unusually long chapter. Likewise, Sex struggles in the way that many TV adaptations and even TV series finales do: there’s too much pressure on its plot. Each joke seems as if it needs to be extra witty or hilarious. After six seasons of setting high expectations, it’s hard for Sex to succeed against itself.

But as someone with an arm’s-length understanding of the series, it suited me just fine. The writing is indeed obvious in places and the hilarity only minor, yet the characters win out: Carrie’s heart, Miranda’s cantankerousness, Charlotte’s wide-eyed princessness and Samantha’s lasciviousness. I would have enjoyed seeing more range and complexity from the latter two characters – the inexplicable addition of another female character to the story, Jennifer Hudson’s Louise, makes that impossible – just like I would have preferred a more profound plot, perhaps specifically dealing with the characters outgrowing their lavish lifestyles. But these are quibbles.

I never once checked my watch during Sex, and not just because I was worried I’d miss Carrie prancing around in her underwear (just for women, my ass). That’s a lot more than I can say for the latest Indiana Jones flick, which is just as superficial but with far less charm. Is Sex a cultural breakthrough? Some people, including feminists, sure hope not. But we’ve been cheering less-than-refined men for years, and I’m up for something new. Underneath it all, the best thing about Sex is that it doesn’t care whether I, the straight male, like it or not. I find that confidence sexy.


Alison Hunter said...

Great blog - I haven't seen the movie yet, but just wrote a blog about the horrific internet (predominantely male) backlash against "Sex and the City." Your balanced prespective is a breath of fresh air.

Fox said...

I found it odd, as well, that the film ran a hefty 148 minutes. I haven't seen it, and probably only will on a DVD rental some night. (and b/c I think the brunette one is a doll).

But I appreciate you going to bat for it. I fall victim to this too, but it seemed that so much was critically said of the film before anybody had even seen it. I'm sure many writers were readying their hit pieces on it long before it even hit screens.

Jason said...

I agree with Alison -- great post. I guess I can keep my "man card" after all.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jason: If you still had your "man card" before "Sex," there's no reason you should have to turn it in now.

Also, I appreciate your post for the comparison to "Entourage." I have never seen the show, but my understanding of it would fit your male-version-of-"Sex" description.

That said, are there reviews out there suggesting that women will be "bored" watching "Entourage," or from female critics saying that they are so far removed from its target audience that they can't even attempt to consider it? I hope so. Otherwise there's a heck of a lot of hypocrisy going on right now.

One final note: I got an e-mail from one friend of The Cooler saying he appreciated my review and "guilty pleasures" in general. But here's the thing: I don't feel the least bit guilty about liking "Sex." As I said above, I'm fine if anyone (man or woman) doesn't want to see it. But those men rushing from the show like it's some female-bonding Oprah special on menopause apparently don't have a clue what they're running from.