For anyone who can’t help but park the remote every time a Sex and the City rerun airs on TBS or some local channel ad nauseam, it should be known that you’re not a true fan unless you concede that the best episodes exploited Carrie Bradshaw’s brittle, unpleasant selfishness. (And not the dreadful spin-off film, where everybody was self-serving and worthy of a sock in the jaw.) It’s always rather mystifying that many considered her a modern heroine, as she is callous and uncouth, and often treated her pals and lovers like her beloved Manolos, something to walk on in fair weather. Sarah Jessica Parker, in those episodes, always stepped up to the plate to create this walking conundrum: a smiley-faced, resourceful piranha that had some deeper feeling, but never knew where to put it. Parker’s keen sense is the only thing keeping the reprehensible race drama Spinning Into Butter from becoming a riotous laughfest; her ability to portray contradictory traits suggests what the movie could have been if it only followed her cue. Instead, we get a corny, retrograde melodrama that makes Crash look subtle by comparison.
Any movie that chooses to open a credits sequence with a Maya Angelou quote and blackface cartoons screams desperation, as if the movie’s themes couldn’t resonate on their own. From there, we meet Dean Sarah Daniels (Parker), whose mettle is tested when a young black student (Paul James) at a lily-white, autocrat-run Vermont college receives racially charged notes (“Little Black Sambo,” which we naturally get explained to us later, is the major one). Then a snoopy reporter (Mykelti Williamson) begins to meet cute with Sarah, who slowly reveals her previous background at a mostly black school and how that experience made her a natural choice to the barracudas that run things now. And eventually we learn why she left that former job, and how her inherent racist leanings made her who she is today.
To be perfectly upfront, Rebecca Gilman’s Off Broadway play on which this is based wasn’t exactly probing either. A pungent set of ideas turned into a creaky tract, it nonetheless was notable just for where it played, at NYC’s tony Lincoln Center, an upper-crust institution if there ever was one. But it never crossed over into TV-movie simplicity either; when Hope Davis (who played the female lead) finally admitted that she felt the student body of her former college were “lazy and stupid,” it had a certain sting and her subsequent reasoning didn’t seem like mere lip service. But here, in a shockingly awful idea, Parker performs the same scene opposite Williamson’s poorly incorporated black newsman (a completely invented character for the movie), so we can lamely find her brave for her admission. Yet it robs what made Davis’s same scene so compelling; she told a fellow (white) faculty member, which hammered home the unsettling idea of private racism.
Director Mark Brokaw, making an ill-advised leap from stage to screen, never finds a worthy tone for the film; the early going suggests a dark comedy, and then it becomes a ridiculously wan message movie, yet neither ever works. (This could be why the movie has languished somewhere for at least two years.) Creeping along to at a scant 87 minutes, the movie really has nothing original to say on a subject done to death (especially when the denouement arrives, just as unconvincing here as on stage). Carrie Bradshaw herself would have said it best, “So many roads. So many detours. So many choices. So many mistakes.”