‘Sex and the City’: Afterlife, By Kurt Loder

Can it be as good as the series? Or maybe better?

Media attempts to whip up male hysteria around the release of the “Sex and the City” movie have been thoroughly peculiar. The assumption appears to be that any guy voluntarily going to see this picture — or, more likely, getting shanghaied into seeing it by the “Sex”-addicted woman in his life — would somehow be sullying his heterosexuality, and, who knows, might soon find himself mooning over a pair of $700 Jimmy Choo sandals, or something. In London, where the movie opened on Wednesday, a columnist for the Evening Standard warned, “If there ever was a time for men to avoid the cinema, this weekend is it.”

This is truly stupid, and not just because the movie turns out to be so unexpectedly excellent. Granted, the “Sex and the City” series that ran on HBO for six seasons, from 1998 to 2004, was an urban-girly phenomenon, a window into a bright, chattery world in which women actually talked about things that women actually talk about, and in the earthy terms they actually use. (The show could only have flowered fully on cable; the censored reruns currently airing on TBS are a feeble facsimile of the original series.) The characters were, by most measures, deeply superficial — scene-makers, trend slaves and fashion victims of the most tragic sort. But they had real human complexities, out of which arose very human concerns. And the show was brilliantly written — the dialogue had a snap and bite that surely would have found favor with Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges or any of the other Hollywood screwball masters of yore. It was also beautifully shot — a visual valentine to the iconic delights of New York City (well, make that Manhattan).

So now, four years after the series wrapped up, we have the movie. It could have been a simple cash-in, a pointless brand-name regurgitation. The fact that it isn’t — that it actually surpasses its source — is something of a wonder.

The founding four friends are still at the center of things, naturally: Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), the clothes-horse relationship columnist; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), the sour-tongued corporate lawyer; Charlotte (Kristin Davis), the starry-eyed art dealer; and Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the man-eating PR exec. There’s a lot to not want to give away about the story, so let’s just say that Carrie — now working on a book, but continuing to write for Vogue magazine — is still tight with her longtime squeeze, Mr. Big (Chris Noth); in fact, they’re finally moving in together, into a huge and blazingly sunny penthouse apartment. (“So this is where they keep the light,” Big marvels.) Since the trailer already gives it away, we can also stipulate that they’ve suddenly become engaged, and that Carrie has burst into full, manic wedding-planner mode. (The guest list has already reached 200, and “Page Six” is on the story.)

Meanwhile, Miranda and her good-guy husband, Steve (David Eigenberg), are still living with their little boy in Brooklyn, and they’re having problems — to the extent of not having had sex in six months. Charlotte, still happily married to the loving Harry (Evan Handler) and doting on their adopted Chinese daughter, remains the free-range sunbeam she’s always been. (Davis’ character is somewhat underserved by the exigencies of the plot.) And Samantha has moved to Los Angeles, if you can believe, where she’s living with and managing her much younger (what else?) actor boyfriend, Smith (Jason Lewis). She is also beginning to chafe, however, under the constraints of true, monogamous love.

That’ll do. This setup evolves into a rather grand comic examination of friendship and betrayal, love and forgiveness, and the inexorable social pressures of aging. At the beginning of the film we see the streets of Manhattan thronged with happy young women just starting out in the big city, and we hear Carrie saying, in voice-over, “Twenty years ago, I was one of them.” This could’ve been a sappy line, but Parker delivers it in a matter-of-fact way, and it’s unusually moving. (It’s a small, recurring shock to keep realizing that the four main characters, who were in their lively 30s when the TV series started, are now embarked on their 40s — and that Samantha is about to turn 50.) To an even greater degree than you might expect, the picture has a lot of heart, and plenty of smart, pungent laughs. (Congratulated for finally snagging a man, Carrie is told by her Vogue editor that 40 is “the last age at which a woman can be photographed in a bridal dress without the unintended Diane Arbus subtext.”)

The movie was written and directed by Michael Patrick King, who also worked in those capacities on the series, and here he’s topped himself. Even more than before, the lines crackle with urban energy, and the picture sparkles with wonderful little dabs of character-illumination. (Stuck without her cell when she needs to make a call, Carrie is handed an iPhone — which she thrusts back as if it were some scary new breed of bug. “I can’t operate that,” she says, showing her age.) There are a few problems. A central jilting scenario is strained and unconvincing. There is some prolonged dog humor that could have been dispensed with. And a new character named Louise seems grafted onto the story for no especially interesting purpose. (Since she’s played by the vibrantly appealing Jennifer Hudson, though, who cares?) On the other hand, fans, there are also trademark couture wallows — including a glittery Fashion Week runway show — that are, as I believe they still say, to die for.

But is “Sex in the City” a movie that men can relate to? Well, Judd Apatow has already softened up the male demographic with pictures like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” And like those films, this one maintains a near-perfect balance between tender sentiment and carnal extroversion. (When was the last time you saw a naked woman turn herself into a living sushi platter?) It’s a funny movie that also resonates emotionally — a rare-enough twofer — and it’s great to see these familiar characters being taken someplace new and considerably more adventurous. What’s not to like? I mean, guys, come on.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “Stuck” and “Savage Grace,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Sex and the City: The Movie.”

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