Devotees of the HBO series will probably flock to the movie version of “Sex and the City,” but anybody who’s not already a fan is going to have difficulty understanding what all the fuss is about. The movie—which unconscionably runs almost the equivalent of five half-hour episodes—is part fashion show, part vacuous soap opera, and part cheesy comedy. And though it centers on a quartet of highly successful forty-something women, it basically treats them like four dipsticks who haven’t much progressed beyond a sorority-house level of maturity, focused on designer-label goodies but still incomplete without a man no matter how high they’ve progressed on the professional ladder. (To be fair, we are supposed to detect some growth in each of them, but in reality it’s pretty slight.) As for the guys they’re involved with, they’re not much more than the fleshy equivalent of the gals’ clothes and accessories, expected in effect to be the servants of whatever the divas’ different needs might be—eunuchs in all but the literal sense. This is a hundred-proof chick flick.

Undoubtedly it would help to be acquainted with the characters beforehand, to have become not just knowledgeable about but sympathetic to their quirks and foibles before the credits roll. But though writer-director Michael Patrick King provides a sprightly introductory montage to situate the uninitiated and instruct camp-followers about changes in the heroines’ lives since the series ended in 2004, it won’t do much to make the characters any more appealing to those meeting the quartet for the first time.

Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is the linchpin, a single writer who’s no longer with the man of her dreams, the slick, rich, twice-divorced Wall Street financier the girlfriends have nicknamed Mr. Big (Chris Noth) and is apparently addicted to owning endless racks of high-end dresses and multiple shelves of shoes—a sort of American Imelda Marcos. Her chums for two decades are Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), a hard-driving lawyer whose ambition has distanced her from her doormat of a husband Steve (David Eigenberg), though they both dote on their son; dippy Charlotte (Kristin Davis), blessed with Harry (Evan Handler), a hubby who will do anything for her but a bit unhappy because they haven’t been able to have a child—something they’ve remedied by adopting a Korean girl; and Samantha (Kim Cattrall), a larger-than-life (in every sense) agent who’s now living in L.A. with the gorgeous TV star she manages, Smith Jarrod (Jason Lewis), a buff hunk of blonde beefcake who’s devoted to her (though she’s so obnoxious that apart from the sex, it’s hard to understand why).

Each of the four is given a narrative thread. For Carrie it’s reconnection and possible marriage with Big, something that naturally will involve major hitches along the way. For Miranda, it’s the surprising infidelity of her abnormally submissive spouse, a betrayal that she refuses to forgive. For Charlotte it’s pregnancy. And for Samantha it’s an attraction to an inviting next-door neighbor that makes her feel that she’s stopped putting her own desires first to serve Jarrod’s needs (though, to tell the truth, it seems that’s he’s the one serving hers). Needless to say, all of these plot elements wind their way to endings in which the women find fulfillment of various kinds and learn something about themselves in the process.

It’s all very schematic and, to a newcomer, not very ingratiating. For one thing, the constant emphasis on the crassest sort of materialism and ostentation is rather appalling; “The Devil Wears Prada” sent up the high-fashion snakepit, but “Sex and the City” seems to revel in it without any ironic subtext, and when Carrie’s idea of heaven is a penthouse apartment with a walk-in closet the size of a bedroom to house all the stuff she plans to buy, one has to wonder what it says about her and those who might identify with her. (What makes it even worse is that when Jennifer Hudson is introduced as her new assistant, the sweet, innocent young girl has a thing for designer handbags too, and revels in her employer’s conspicuous consumption.)

For another, one might have hoped for a bit of sophistication in the humor, but no such luck. As if Cattrall’s over-the-top earth-mother shtick weren’t bad enough—and she grates from her first appearance and get progressively more irritating throughout—we’re treated to a crude gag involving Charlotte and Montezuma’s revenge in a Mexican interlude and repeated gags focusing on Samantha’s pup-in-heat in the later reels.

Add to that the periodic scenes featuring the quartet, almost designed to make you squirm—the way they squeal with delight on seeing each other again gets to be like fingers scraping a blackboard, making them all seem like six-year olds.

As to the cast, the men are pretty much window-dressing here, and you have to sympathize with them as they plod through their utterly subservient roles. (The worst assignment certainly goes to Gilles Marini as Samantha’s California neighbor, who’s treated as much like a piece of meat as women are in so many pictures.) This is the girls’ show, and all four of the stars get their moments, though it’s difficult to say they make best use of them. We’re obviously meant to cheer on Cattrall’s take-no-prisoners Samantha, but she’s like a charmless, utterly self-centered Auntie Mame, who might have been sufferable in smaller half-hour doses but is here way overbearing at two hours plus. Parker is more demure but less appealing than intended. Davis plays the amiable fool all too well, but Nixon is a bit too fierce for the picture’s balance. Oscar-winner Hudson offers nothing but a generalized bonhomie.

They all look fine in Patricia Field’s costumes, though—easily one of the picture’s most important elements, nicely set off (as are the locations in New York, California and Mexico) by John Thomas’ glossy cinematography.

Ultimately, though “Sex and the City” focuses on characters who look human, it’s really about things rather than people. And though it pretends to be about forgiveness—characters are constantly apologizing to one another in it—the reconciliations at the close have a spurious, even coarse feel (one occurs in that huge closet, and another, on the Brooklyn Bridge, is an obvious rip-off of “An Affair to Remember”). The theme is appropriate in a way, though, since a great many viewers—especially guys who are dragged to it by their wives and girlfriends—will be sorry, too.