Fans of HBO's landmark series "Sex and the City" -- and they are legion -- will be relieved to know that, scene for scene, the new movie based on the show doesn't particularly sink below the level of a good, solid episode. Then again, those fans probably won't be reading this at all. This show has inspired devotion that renders aficionados indifferent to anyone who would dare to sit in judgment of anything pertaining to the doings of Carrie Bradshaw and company. As series regular Willie Garson (who plays Stanford Blatch) remarked on the red carpet outside the New York premiere (beamed in an almost-live feed to theaters previewing the movie across America, a first that hints at the immense revenue that distributors expect to reap from this cinematic postmortem), "This movie is actually critic-proof. It's for the fans."
That remark sums up the accomplishments and the limitations of "Sex and the City: The Movie." For those hungry for an update on what's happened since Feb. 22, 2004, that grim winter night when the show signed off for the last time, this movie will be like news from home. On the other hand, if you don't already know your way around the show's fantasy version of New York or aren't acquainted with its spruce denizens, don't expect this film to clue you in. "Sex and the City" wants to recruit only those who are already members.
Narrating, as usual, is Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), the savvy dissector of postmodern urban sexual mores who, nevertheless, tosses reason to the wind when confronted with a Louis Vuitton bag or a ruggedly handsome male face, especially if it (the face, not the bag) belongs to Mr. Big (Chris Noth), her perennial on-again, off-again flame. Early in the movie, the two drift into plans to marry, a plot development that would have seemed the natural series-ender, but wasn't.
The rhythm of the movie follows the rhythm of a typical episode: Each of the four female characters withdraws into her own life to be with her man (or to hold herself aloof from him), until the bonds of sisterhood bring them careening back into each other's arms, full of sass, complaints, ecstasies and advice for whoever's hurting. Thus we see the unrepentantly randy Samantha (Kim Cattrall) struggle with monogamous life in L.A. with stud-muffin Smith Jerrod (Jason Lewis), while Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), endearingly cranky as ever, holds her good-hearted husband Steve (David Eigenberg) to exacting standards that cast doubt on the future of their marriage. Perky Charlotte (Kristin Davis) mostly lends moral support, until an unexpected development blossoms into a plot point of its own.
A remarkable instance of what now seems a general problem in Hollywood, "Sex and the City" seems to take its cue from the '70s mega-hit featured on the show's soundtrack, "More, More, More." At close to two and a half hours, this movie is 45 minutes longer than "Casablanca" and, more to the point, about a half-hour longer than "The Philadelphia Story." It's even longer than the unexampled, inexhaustible portrait of women, love and ambition in glamorous New York, "All About Eve." As a result, what could and should have been a brisk and breezy postcard from an old pal threatens to turn into an annual Yuletide update letter of the most wearingly meticulous kind. If an hour had been chopped, this movie could have been a hoot. As it is, many were walking to the exits the minute the scent of closure was in the air.
The one real novelty in the movie is Jennifer Hudson of "American Idol" and "Dreamgirls" fame, who plays Carrie's personal assistant and guides her through a particularly rough patch. Asked on the red carpet about the gold Peter Soronen dress she wore to the premiere (this is a movie obsessed with labels, after all), Hudson remarked, "I just rubbed up against my Oscar." If only the movie could have had as light an attitude about its honored past. There are plenty of fun moments in "Sex and the City," but as the movie drifts into its third hour, you start to feel that it's not joy that's keeping you in the theater. It's duty. (R) 148 min.ÿ