Gang of four

Feature film caps the successful series with a story that's skimpy on sex but long on love

A telling moment in the Sex and the City movie comes at a formal pre-wedding dinner as the maid of honor refuses to dish dirt on the bride, boldly asserting that in their close-knit group of friends, no one kisses and tells. As anyone who's watched the groundbreaking HBO comedy knows, these four single New Yorkers did a whole lot more than kiss and they talked about it incessantly, in the kind of graphic detail that made the show a primer on female sexual mores.

The film's writer and director, Michael Patrick King, was the showrunner who guided the series (1998-2004) from its randy beginnings to its traditional conclusion: the women in monogamous relationships with men who had proven themselves worthy of commitment. The central character, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), may have written a newspaper sex column, but it was as much about the importance of friendship and the vagaries of romantic relationships, and so — in the end — was the show.

Men came and went; it was the bond between Carrie, publicist Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), gallery manager Charlotte York (Kristin Davis), and attorney Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) that served as their vital support system and emotional outlet. That remains true in the film, which picks up four years after the show's happily-ever-after conclusion. Samantha has moved to Los Angeles to oversee the career of her protégé, and Carrie is now a best-selling author, but otherwise, little has changed.

Carrie doesn't ask it in her trademark voiceover, but the big question hanging over the women is this: they've settled in, but are they settling? Over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours (that's five back-to-back episodes), there are betrayals and reconnections, expectations do battle with fear and disappointment, and the primacy of the union between these women is reasserted with a new maturity. Gone is the girlfriends-uniting-against-irresponsible-men pose, as they realize just how much the ability to speak freely with each other benefits the other aspects of their lives.

There's actually very little sex in this City; the only person really getting any action is Samantha's handsome Malibu neighbor. When one character does get down and dirty with some R-rated make-up sex, it seems glaringly out of place in King's relationship-focused film, which resembles the final episodes of the series. What the movie really reveals is the secret of Sex and the City: Despite its culture-shifting reputation, the show was essentially a very smart soap opera, made with an inclusive intimacy that allowed women viewers to live vicariously through the complex characters.

Will the judgmental Miranda forgive her husband's infidelity? Will the voracious Samantha remain faithful? Will the worrisome Charlotte embrace pregnancy? Will the weary Carrie finally trust in the devotion of her Mr. Big (Chris Noth)? None of this will matter much to anyone but die-hard series fans; the film's sketchy portraits rely on the audience's knowledge of their intricate backstories.

One jarring change here is the rampant product placement, and the emphasis on high-end shopping as Carrie morphs from fashion roadkill to Vogue model bride. Outrageous fashion was always a part of the storylines (entire episodes would revolve around the acquisition of shoes or handbags), but trends spawned by the Sex quartet were more about individual style, quirky choices pulled together by adventurous dressers. Sadly, influential costume designer Patricia Field has turned them into couture mannequins.

So, at the point when it seems that our once yearning friends have simply become ladies who lunch, King decides that they can have their cosmos, and drink them too. He's constructed the film not only as a happy reunion, but a return to romance. When Carrie finally slips back into her sky-high Manolos, it's in the kind of Cinderella moment that she'd stopped believing is possible. For all the film's emphasis on the acquisition of status symbols, it's love that wins out over labels.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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