Different city, worse 'Sex': Trite movie abuses goodwill for TV show, characters
It hasn't always been easy to defend "Sex and the City." From its inception as an HBO series in the 1990s, the franchise about four women coming of a certain age in Manhattan has acquired deep, almost mystical meaning among its most passionate admirers. When the "Sex and the City" movie appeared two years ago, its lightweight story line, shameless materialism and unapologetic shallowness provided easy targets for sniffy critics.
What the detractors never understood was that, as much as any comic book, video game or action toy spinoff, "Sex and the City" is, was and always will be for the fans. Which is why the first movie could be appreciated on its own hedonistic terms, while "Sex and the City 2" -- an enervated, crass and gruesomely caricatured trip to nowhere -- seems conceived primarily to find new and more cynical ways to abuse the loyalty of its audience.
The rupture is evident from the first strained moments of "Sex and the City 2," which picks up the story of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her friends Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) two years after the last film ended. Carrie, happily married to Mr. Big (Chris Noth), has been feathering their handsome Upper East Side nest, while the others navigate motherhood, careers and menopause.
That last plot point allows for plenty of tired jokes about hormones and sex drives, all of which are trotted out during the movie's over-the-top opening sequence set at a gay wedding. And boy, is it a gay wedding: swans, a white-tails-clad men's chorus, Liza Minnelli officiating. It's such a gay wedding. Written and directed by Michael Patrick King, who produced the original HBO series, "Sex and the City 2" never fails to underline a joke after it's been capitalized and italicized.
Judging from that interminable, painfully forced sequence in which every homophobic stereotype is indulged, overstated and beaten to within an inch of its reductive life, a thread of self-hatred animates this "Sex and the City" that was only hinted at in previous incarnations. As the story progresses, inexplicably, to a freebie junket in Abu Dhabi, the script visits one indignity after another upon "the girls," from Miranda's desperate whoops of fake glee to convince herself that she's having fun to Samantha's compulsive penchant for dirty puns.
Sophomoric, sexualized humor isn't a sin when it comes to "Sex and the City"; after all, one of the taboo territories the show so boldly conquered was feminizing raunchy comedy that has otherwise been the purview of Judd Apatow and his tribe of Lost Boys. But while the show and the first movie managed to thread a tricky needle between the traditionally girly concerns of clothes, shoes and romance and a far more sober, clear-eyed view of female solidarity and autonomy, "Sex and the City 2" uses feminist arguments to preempt the criticism it so richly deserves.
Thus Carrie & Co. can run amok in Abu Dhabi, dressed like the offspring of Barnum & Bailey and Alexis Carrington, making jokes about burqas and, in Samantha's case, engaging in exhibitionistic displays that border on the psychotic. But to disapprove of their behavior is tantamount to punishing female desire -- or, in the film's preferred trope, "silencing their voice." (The filmmakers have apparently mistaken the cosmopolitan island city of Abu Dhabi, here played by Morocco, for Saudi Arabia.)
The more strenuously "Sex and the City 2" tries to become a parable of transnational sisterhood (during a karaoke scene set to "I Am Woman," for example), the more patronizing and self-important the movie becomes, and the more its protagonists come to resemble shrill female impersonators. When Carrie expresses disbelief that a woman in full abaya can still enjoy a french fry, the veiled woman in question may be forgiven for taking in Carrie's own insane get-up of a "J'adore Dior" T-shirt, silver moire jacket, full flouncy skirt and five-inch heels and wondering who's the more sartorially oppressed.
Casting aside the filmmakers' breathtaking cultural insensitivity, their astonishingly tone-deaf ear for dialogue and pacing, their demented, self-serving idea of female empowerment, the biggest sin of "Sex and the City 2" is its lack of beauty. It's garish when it should be sumptuous, tacky when it should be luxe, wafer-thin when it should be whip-smart and sophisticated.
King goes out of his way to reference the Depression-era classic "It Happened One Night" in his movie, a nod that only invites unfortunate comparisons to those filmmakers who once managed to honor their audiences while soothing them with confected images of affluence and romance.
This pale shadow, on the other hand, makes a mockery of the surface pleasures that the original series -- and cinema itself -- could always be counted on to provide. The fans most likely will still flock to "Sex and the City 2," but once the goodwill has worn off, they may feel as if it's their desires that are being punished.
Sex and the City 2
(140 minutes, opening Thursday at area theaters) is rated R for some strong sexual content and profanity.