When the first Sex and the City movie came out in 2008, it represented an unusually easeful transition from television series to stand-alone movie. With an elegant opening-credit sequence filling in missing narrative gaps, the film went on to cram a whole TV season's worth of material into one long but not overstuffed movie. Its flaws — the crass materialism, the legion of minor contrivances and bad puns — were those of the series, elements with which the film's built-in fanbase were either unbothered or had long made peace. It was strictly for the fans, who responded by helping it gross more than $150 million at the American box office and giving the creators the impetus to extend the franchise.
But I wonder how many of the faithful will be as pleased by Sex and the City 2. The new film jumps ahead two years to find its four protagonists dealing with a more grown-up set of issues: Successful author and annoying narrator Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is now sometimes "Carrie Preston," negotiating the complexities of her childless marriage to "Mr. Big" (Chris Noth) and fearing the onset of boring middle age. Nymphomaniac publicist and cheap comic relief Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) is fending off menopause with a battalion of hormone pills and luring a potential big-catch new client in Abu Dhabi. Recovering WASP supermom and preppie charmer Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) is dealing with a difficult second child with the assistance of a perhaps too attractive nanny. And type A attorney and voice of reason Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) is contemplating quitting her job in response to a sexist new senior partner.
The opening credits — gleaming diamond text, a panorama of skyscrapers, and Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' unavoidable and seemingly written-to-order "Empire State of Mind" — suggest old times, and in part that's what Sex and the City 2 is seeking. Conceived in relative boom times, the series' voracious high-end product placement and fiscal nonchalance started to feel both anachronistic and grotesque long ago, and here the whole enterprise is defiant in the face of reality: "Two years of bad business and this bullshit economy and I'm done," Samantha gripes. "We need to go somewhere rich."
And with that the foursome is whisked away on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Abu Dhabi, where a fleet of gleaming-white Maybachs and handsome manservants await their every need, and wardrobe changes are plentiful. This excursion turns out problematic. The culture-clash comedy of bold American women in the not-so-new Middle East is handled too stupidly to go anywhere. With the Abu Dhabi vacation taking up the bulk of the film and an extended Connecticut wedding sequence at the beginning, there's very little "city" in this Sex and the City, which makes the NYC sentimentality and triumphalism of the opening credits even more curious.
And geography isn't the only source of imbalance. Sex and the City always has been about playing its florid, almost self-consciously campy elements against more grounded girl talk, giving its generally middle-class, decidedly non-Manhattanite fans both a fantasy to indulge in and characters to whom they can relate. This time, however, the flamboyance runs roughshod over the relatable. Promising storylines about Miranda's work problems and Charlotte's home problems are shuttled to the side (the film's best scene is a brief, simple, frank conversation between these two) to make room for sequences — a karaoke rendition of "I Am Woman," Liza Minnelli doing Beyoncé, Samantha dropping condoms amid a Muslim call to prayer — in which you're more embarrassed for the actors and writers than for the characters.
Opens Friday, May 28th