The last TV series (or two) of Sex and the City struggled to find new territory and fresh perspectives. The first movie reduced Carrie and co. to emotional stereotypes. In Sex and the City 2, four talented actresses humiliate themselves as shrieking clotheshorses and crass Americans abroad. The feeble sex jokes never rise above the (padded) groin. The fashion flirts with Orientalist insult. As the movie spins into an orgy of tawdry prurience and cultural prejudice, it’s topped and tailed by a few half-hearted flaps of marital discord and make-up between Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Big (Chris Noth).
Now robbed of her self-deflating interior voice, Carrie whinges and whines like an obnoxious child. Her friends have also lost their way, with Samantha (Kim Cattrall) morphed into a monstrous talking vagina, with none of the hard-won wisdom she dispensed on the small screen, and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) granted a mere few minutes out of the two hours-plus to share the darker side of motherhood over enormous cocktails.
Somewhere in this bloated grotesquerie lies a tidy half hour of cable TV. Two years into marriage, Carrie is not quite sure she likes where she and Big are heading, based on where they are—sharing gourmet takeout and watching black-and-white movies on a wide-screen TV. In the old days, her question would have fueled argument, self-reflection, and just enough wry philosophizing to convince the viewer she was not wholly wasting her time. In the blockbuster present, the premise remains unexplored. Instead, director Michael Patrick Smith fills time with a gratuitous trip to Abu Dhabi, all expenses paid, courtesy of a business invitation for Samantha. Creak. Creak.
While one might forgive such a plot contrivance if it precipitated the slightest entertainment, this one only precipitates dire boredom and squirming discomfort on behalf of all Americans abroad anywhere. The spectacle of four supposedly high-achieving, professional NYC sophisticates “Ooohing” and “Aahing” at a tacky gilt and red-brick fantasy Middle East escaped from a Disney rejects storehouse is beyond risible. They wear Dior and Tiffany: they should not be speechless at high ceilings and purple walls. The entire “Abu Dhabi” section piles cliché upon cliché: the women ride camels, buy spices in a souk, frame themselves in Moorish arches, and let a lot of floaty scarves slip off strategically bare flesh. The story even provides moonlight and a forbidden kiss. Only Aladdin is missing—though there is a faithful retainer rewarded by Princess Carrie with the money for one visit with his faithful wife in India.
Sixties and ‘70s filmmakers framed such American crassness as satire of an inward-looking super-power. King serves it straight, which just makes it more offensive. In scene after scene, the women flaunt couturier riffs on Western fantasies of a mythic Middle Eastern dress, their exposed skin feeble assertions of feminist ideals. And that’s only the beginning: Samantha so lacks self-control that she performs slow-mo fellatio on a restaurant hookah. Carrie gawps at a woman wearing a niqāb eating French fries. And the foursome’s most important discovery is that women in the United Arab Emirates like to wear Louis Vitton under their burqas: they’re just like us!
All this acting out seems all the more preposterous in the context of the set-up for the visit, the chance for Samantha to snag the entire PR for the Emirate’s hotels. Although the TV series showcased love and angst in hothouse New York, it did also root its characters in the lonely realities of working and living alone in a tough city. Samantha ran a successful business precisely because she could control self-gratification in the service of the deal. In this movie, that person has vanished in a cloud of unregulated hormones, played by Cattrall with grating one-note hysteria. Not that she faces much competition in the acting stakes from Parker, Davies, and Nixon, who maybe manage two notes apiece in a good scene. By contrast, the sex-and-pecs hunks who wander through occasional scenes as if they were Milanese catwalks provide brief oases of relief.
All that said, it’s plainly a mistake to view Sex and the City 2 in conventional movie terms. The preview audience sounded its biggest collective gasp during the opening sequences, at a close-up of Carrie’s sparkling Laboutin heels. This was followed by a bevy of smaller sighs every time the quartet erupted onto the screen in still more sartorial overkill. Clearly, King could save his investors a lot of money and his audiences a lot of pain by opting out of movies and directing couturier shows instead.