Alissa Quart’s column in Slate’s Big Money argues that in addition to rating movies and television for language, violence, sex, smoking, and substance abuse, we should rate them for product placement. She notes that for $300,000 you can have your product prominently featured in “customized storylines” on “The L Word,” a program produced by the “non-commercial” Showtime cable network. So, when we see a character on that show who is excited about a new car or pair of shoes or laundry detergent, we no longer accept that as an indication of character or plot but a distraction to remind us that we may be watching a story but we are also being sold. The line between art and commerce blurs even further as the networks themselves are getting into the business of selling the products and clothes and even the furniture used by television characters, essentially turning every program into an infomercial.
This is especially troubling in media for children where even “Baby Einstein,” which originally promised its DVDs would not be used to sell products, changed its mind and every G and PG release has with “partners” selling everything from postage stamps to cleaning products, not to mention toys and fast food. I would like to see a prominent caution listing all companies that have paid to have their products featured in the movie or in its advertising so at least parents can be prepared to help children navigate the ever-shrinking line between story and commercial.
It isn’t so much that they have updated or re-invented the brilliantly acidic Claire Boothe Luce play that was adapted for a classic 1939 movie; they completely misunderstood it. The surface details of the original may need updating but its essential message and mordant wit are timeless. This version, in the works for more than a decade, is soft-focus but high-gloss, substituting empowerment for devotion. It is entertaining but it has a bitter aftertaste.
The original, the musical remake with June Allyson, and the new version all center on Mary Haines (Meg Ryan), who seems at the beginning to have it all — a beautiful home, a great job, good values, a loving family, and a lot of women friends, and who discovers that her husband is having an affair with a girl from the perfume counter. The original was written at a time when the daily lives of New York society women were as unknown and exotic to the men in their lives as to everyone who did not live on 5th Avenue. Each character was an example of one of a range of different coping mechanisms for the pampered birds in their silver cages. Without a single male in the cast, the story was told in women-only settings like an afternoon bridge game, a luxurious day spa, elegant stores, and a Nevada ranch-full of women establishing their six-week residency as the only way back then to get a divorce. Most of the characters were silly, selfish, cynical, or alone. And Mary painfully learned that “pride is a luxury a woman in love can’t afford.” Her husband and family must come first.
In this Oprah-fied version, it’s still an all-female story, and sistahs are doin’ it for themselves. The diamond rings on their fingers are gifts the women exchanged with each other. Mary says that she lost her job, her husband, and her best friend, and it is the best friend she misses most. And Mary’s great revelation comes from asking herself not what is best for her family but what she wants.
Some worthwhile thoughts about the way women lose themselves in what Oprah calls “the disease to please” are lost in the new-agey self-absorption of tasks like making a collage of magazine cut-outs to define your dreams and transforming your life by straightening your previously adorably curly hair. In the original, a woman’s heart got a make-over. Here, it’s just her hairstyle. And the actresses, who have the benefit of great genes and the finest cosmetic treatments in the world, have the chutzpah to do a post-credits coda reminding those of us in the audience who are not out at the parking lot already that inner beauty is what matters.
The all-star cast is sublimely watchable, especially Mary’s close friends: Annette Benning as a harried single magazine editor, an ever-pregnant earth mother (Debra Messing), and the spirited gay friend (Jada Pinkett-Smith). Bette Midler shows up as a brassy multi-married agent and the femme fatale behind the perfume counter is Eva Mendes. There are some clever in-jokes for fans of the first version and the able cast knows how to give the dialogue from writer/director Diane English snap. But the script makes the same mistake its characters do — it tries to do too much and to be whatever everyone wants.
This movie is less true to the original than it is to the girlcrush/shopping fetish “Sex in the City.” Instead of wit we get quips. Instead of poignant conversations about love and loss we get wisecracks and shoe shopping. “What do you think this is, some kind of 1930’s movie,” one character asks. We wish.
No spoiler alert is required before disclosing that the very appropriate and deeply satisfying fade-out at the end of this film has its four heroines happily going off into the metaphorical sunset….with each other. That is the great love story of the movie.
The four women in this movie version of the wildly popular and influential HBO series (off the air for four years but now running in expurgated form on broadcast channels in reruns) may think they yearn for romance. But in reality the men in their lives are there primarily as topics of conversation for the relationships that matter most. It is their friends who make them laugh, their friends that they want to call first with good news or bad, their friends whose lives — and clothes — are their primary concern, their friends who are always intensely interested in every detail of each other’s lives, their friends who reflect themselves and all they might be back to them like a dressing room with a magic mirror. In this woman-centered, fashion-drenched world, men are an accessory.
Indeed, as with stories like, well “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” “Steel Magnolias,” and even “Bratz,” the intense connection of those relationships is the essence of the appeal of the series and the movie. While we watch them, we connect to our own reality about the vital role that friends play in our lives and we tap into the deep wish in all of us for people in our lives who are infinitely interested and spaciously accepting of the tiniest details of our lives. It is telling that the biggest falling-out among the four friends in this movie is not about doing something wrong. The real transgression is in not being willing to confess all immediately.
Here we also connect to the fantasy of their ziplessness. The four women eat and drink constantly and never seem to exercise or diet but always look model-thin and glowingly gorgeous, their sexual encounters are almost always steamy and satisfying and when they aren’t they are even more fun to talk about, they almost always recover from unhappy romantic encounters by the next episode, and they manage to buy and look sensational in endless and endlessly fabulous ensembles of high-fashion mixed with impeccably chosen vintage and street goodies. It’s like playing Barbies for grown-ups. The sex scenes are not nearly as titillating as the fantasy of fashion and New York glamour, wrapped in a cozy feather comforter of the perpetually supportive cheering section.
Friendship is at the core, but there is plenty of material about the other great pre-occupations of the movie, like the television series: romance, sex, fabulous clothes and shoes, parties, and plumbing the depths of one’s own desires), plus what may be an all-time record number of on-screen apologies. My husband says that an apology, preferably humiliating and public, is the essence of a chick flick. If he is right, this one goes to the top of the list.
The credit sequence briskly brings us up to date, letting us know that the ladies and the world have moved on since writer Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), married mom Charlotte (Kristen Davis), and publicist/manager Samantha (Kim Cattrall) appeared to be headed for happily-ever-after-ville at the conclusion of the series. The tinkling theme music quickly shifts into hip-hop and we find that everything that seemed neatly tied up four years ago is about to become if not completely untied a little bit tangled. People in their 40’s know themselves better than those in their 30’s, but they are also more aware of their narrowing options and the impact of the choices they are making and the ones they do not make.
Carrie and Mr. Big (Chris Noth as John James Preston) are still happily in love and looking for a place to move in together. An jewelry auction for the collection of a billionaire’s discarded mistress, she begins to worry about what would happen to her if Preston decided to leave her. When she tells him that, they decide to get married. Caught up in the fantasy of the ultimate wedding as fashion statement, helped along by posing for a magazine spread modeling bridal gowns by all the top designers, Carrie loses sight of the meaning of the event and the pressure she is putting on the man we will continue to refer to as Mr. Big. Miranda and her husband Steve (David Eigenberg) struggle with burnout and trust issues. Samantha, in Los Angeles with her boyfriend of five years, the hunky Smith (Jason Lewis), having helped him become a big star , misses New York, her friends, and her polyamorous lifestyle, wonders if she can continue to compromise.
The screenplay is uneven and it tilts too far on the side of retail therapy. That is a function of the realities of modern-day feature film financing — who could have imagined a day that movies would end up more commercial than television? All the more credit for HBO’s commitment to artistic integrity for avoiding the endless recitation of labels and designers, which gets a little intrusive.
But it all goes down as easy as that third Cosmo thanks to the eye candy, our affection for the characters, and the skill of all involved. The slight deepening of the issues and characters works well. As has been remarked before, as in many multi-character sagas, it is intriguing to think of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha as different aspects of one single personality — id, supergo, ego, and libido.
All of the returning stars look sensational and they each know their characters and their fellow performers so well that the chemistry sizzles and the timing purrs. Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) is a welcome addition as Carrie’s new assistant, her warmth and sparkle providing Carrie with a fresh opportunity to show something we almost never saw from her in the series, generosity of spirit and consideration. There are at least three dazzling fashion shows (something of a throwback to old movie classics like The Women, which, in the pre-Internet, pre-television days, served a dual purpose by alerting the women in the audience to the current styles. There are little detail goodies for serious fans (the iconic tutu that gets splashed in the series’ opening sequence and enough going on to entertain casual viewers. It is far from a great movie, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable one and does justice to the aspirations of the series and to its devoted fans.
David Schwimmer, who spent nine years deftly playing Ross on Friends seems to be trying to make a sitcom episode out of this overlong over-conventional under-funny romantic comedy. To put it in its own terms, it might make it as a 100-yard-dash, but does not have the stamina for a marathon.