A funny thing happened to "Sex & the City" on its way to the big screen. It lost its sense of humor. Somehow, a TV sitcom - introduced on HBO in 1998 - that was alternately lively, ribald, often scandalous, achingly human and compulsively watchable has morphed, some ten years later, into a shameless, elephantine soap opera.
You can say a lot about the new film of Candace Bushnell's unsinkable material, some of it complimentary, but you can't say it's funny.
Oddly enough, the same misdirection plagued two network clones - "Cashmere Mafia" and "Lipstick Jungle" - that greedily planned to exploit the popularlity of S&TC.
"Cashmere Mafia" and "Lipstick Jungle" had everything down pat - the self-satisfied characters, the fashions, the conspicuous consumption, the free-flowing alcohol, the snarky dialogue - everything but the humor. Both, presented as dramas, missed the crucial point that S&TC was at heart a comedy.
You'd expect that the minds behind "Sex & the City: The Movie" - Darren Starr and Michael Patrick King, who also shepherded the series - to know better, but no. Their four formerly plucky heroines now practically have "bloodhounds yapping at the rears," to paraphrase Thelma Ritter from "All About Eve." And, oh, the heartbreak of it all...
Gone is the cartoonishness of the shared lifestyle of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and company, a group of women given to shocking outbursts and rampant sarcasm. There was a belief in some quarters that the show was really about four gay men - only disguised as women. I remember when Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum posited this compelling theory in one of her movie reviews.
It made sense and I personally came to see (and enjoy) S&TC as a show not about women, but about four cross-dressing men. I mean, the Samantha character (Kim Cattall) in particular always had the contours of a female impersonator - you know, way, way bigger than life.
"To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Carrie Bradshaw"?
Whatever. On the show, Samantha, a serial bimbo, was raunchy and funny. In the film, she's neither. Now anchored to one man (a slack-jawed Jason Lewis), she misses her bed-hopping so much that she suffers a slow, prolonged meltdown throughout the film, becoming a peeping tom.
Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) was always snarky and funny. Now, she's just snarky - and always angry. And, frankly, unpleasant to be around. You can understand why her dull, nondescript husband (David Eigenberg) would have a quickie with another woman (although you can't quite understand why the woman was interested in him). As he whines and pleads for forgiveness (not attractive), Miranda near-sadistically rejects him (with Cynthia bringing her most defiant, Nixonian reading to the situation).
Charlotte (Kristen Davis) remains what she was on the show - a velvet steamroller. She may seem silly and look sweet and innocent, but she's a killer. Tears, manipulated on cue, are her lethal weapon. I never liked her.
Which brings us to Carrie, still willfully self-involved and shallow. The film is about her and how she's betrayed for the umpteenth time by Mr. Big, née John James Preston (Chris Noth), whose newly-developed paunch is exacerbated by a silly cummerbund in one scene. (This guy's a catch?)
Carrie's misplaced and quite pathetic Cinderella complex and her self-pity, both of which dominate most of the film's 148-minute running time, could have been material for purple-colored, Douglas Sirk-ian filmmaking if only the movie had retained some of the material's original campiness.
Supporting players from the TV series - Lynn Cohen, Willie Garson, Mario Cantone, Candice Bergen, Evan Handler - are reduced to wallpaper here. Their characters are all personality-free and have the skimpiest dialogue.
Only Parker seems to matter and it's a good thing that she's such a good actress because she somehow makes the 148 minutes of navel-gazing not only bearable but fascinating. Carrie is her role of a lifetime and Parker takes full advantage of it (but to the detriment of her talented co-stars).
Memorably following behind Parker are Jennifer Hudson, who is natural and charming as Carrie's assistant, and a young actress named Dreama Walker who nearly walks off with the movie in her one scene as an "Upper East Side Waitress" (as her character is identified).
S&TC remains an unstoppable retro-cult piece. Women who would normally object - and strenuously - to being called silly and shallow have embraced it in a near-mindless way. It's encouraged middle-aged women, not just young girls, to dream about being Cinderella. Not a pretty picture.
The word "empowerment" was drastically redefined by Bushnell's material. So much for the advances of women, so much for feminism. There's a reason why sex columnist Dan Savage ("Savage Love") has referred to S&TC's successful run on HBO as a "reign of terror."
The show - and now the movie - has a lot of explaining to do.
Note in Passing: Wasn't this film made by James Ivory in 1989? Back then, it was called "Slaves of New York," based on the tome by Tama Janowitz (the Candace Bushnell of her day - well, not quite), and Bernadette Peters played the Carrie Bradshaw role.
"Slaves of New York"? Sounds like another candidate for Cinema Obscura. Whatever happened to that film?
(Artwork: Carrie and Samantha, ignoring one another, in a scene from the TV show; Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes), Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) and Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), the female impersonators from "To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," and the poster art for James Ivory's "Slaves of New York")