What’s the dumbest thing you can think of when planning a sequel to a movie called “Sex and the City”? Why, moving the characters out of the city, of course. So that’s what writer-director Michael Patrick King has concocted for this abysmal follow-up to the 2008 big-screen continuation of the HBO cable series. His broad, witless screenplay sends the quartet of mismatched friends—now-married writer Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), aging PR sexpot Samantha (Kim Cattrall), lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and mousy housewife Charlotte (Kristin Davis)—on an all-girls’ vacation to Abu Dhabi, where they naturally get into all sorts of unfunny scrapes. Maybe what was intended was something akin to “Florence of Arabia,” but what results is more like a chick-flick “Ishtar.”
But to be fair, King precedes the trip with an hour’s worth of sitcom prologue featuring a crisis for each woman. A big same-sex wedding ceremony that’s got to be the gayest sequence in a major Hollywood movie, complete with a men’s chorus belting out show-tunes and a service presided over by Liza Minnelli, sets the stage for Carrie’s realization that after two years’ marriage to Big (Chris Noth), she’s beginning to feel—well, married! He’s slipping into a stay-at-home rut that she finds confining, or something. (The walls of her crammed-to-the-ceiling walk-in closets must be pressing in on her.) As for Samantha, she’s feeling the stress of being 52. (Poor dear.) Charlotte quits her job when she’s ignored by her new sexist boss. And Miranda frets that her two demanding daughters are impossible to deal with. You’d think that she should feel overjoyed that she has an exceptionally good nanny on hand, but instead she’s distressed by the Irish lass’ habit of going bra-less, which leads her to baseless suspicions about her doting husband (Evan Handler).
So they all jump at the chance to go off to the “new” Middle East when the rich backer of a desert adventure epic starring one of Samantha’s clients offers her and her pals an all-expenses-paid jaunt in his booming native country. There they’re confronted by religiously-based moral codes, especially in the treatment of women—plot elements that are probably meant to be thought-provoking but are so crudely portrayed that they seem calculated to cause simple-minded indignation. It’s really culturally offensive.
But that’s secondary to the brainless sub-“I Love Lucy” stuff that has the gals swooning over the butlers provided them by the hotel management and getting into trouble. Charlotte and Miranda are pretty much shuffled into the background—the one as the voice of reason, the other as the jerk who’s always on her cell phone calling home. But there’s little room for them to shine when Carrie and Samantha are around. The latter, the ultimate ugly American, is suffering from the effects of hormone-treatment withdrawal and takes up with a visiting European so blatantly that she gets arrested by the public propriety police. Carrie, meanwhile, bemoans the bad review her new book gets in The New Yorker (though if the dreadful puns she keeps dropping that pass for the script’s attempts at humor are any indication of her writing, she deserves any brickbat thrown her way—and in any event the passage quoted from the review is too dull ever to be printed in that magazine), and not only agrees with have dinner with old flame Aidan (John Corbett), whom she bumps into at an outdoor market (yeah, sure, the world being such a small place) but then kisses him! Guilt-ridden, she must of course confess her misstep to her husband.
All this rubbish might be tolerable if it were presented with some sense of ironic commentary about the crass materialism of these women and their utter self-absorption. But we’re actually supposed to feel sympathetic toward these ninnies. You have to wonder how women can identify with these characters any more than men can hoot and holler over the dumb-as-rocks slobs who are the asinine “heroes” of the Apatow movies. Having the gals do a campy karaoke-bar quartet of “I Am Woman” makes things all the worse.
Perhaps the dreadfulness of the writing—in addition to Carrie’s cascade of dreary puns, did we really need “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore?” when the girls arrive in Abu Dhabi, or for Carrie to say to her husband in confessing her kiss with Aidan, “It didn’t mean anything”?—helps to explain why the acting is so terrible. All four stars come off as caricatures, exaggerating everything as though they still expected the excesses to be muted by being viewed on a 21-inch screen rather than in a theatre. But Cattrall is certainly the worst. Of course, one shouldn’t put all the blame on the actresses. King balances the wretchedness of his script with a sledgehammer directorial style that seems designed not only to eliminate any trace of subtlety but to crush the very possibility of it out of existence.
“Sex and the City 2” is, of course, richly appointed, with Morocco standing in for Abu Dhabi (whose government certainly wouldn’t have allowed filming there if anybody had read the insulting script) and colorful widescreen lensing, both there and in America, by John Thomas. And one has to note the role of Patricia Field in providing an array of presumably au courant but grotesquely hideous costumes for the ladies. For some members of the target audience the effect will undoubtedly be joyous, like paging through the latest issue some glossy fashion magazine. For others it will come across like tasteless exhibitionism.
Of course, critical reaction will have no effect on the box-office success of “Sex and the City 2.” It’s going to be a smash. The question is why such idiotic drek, which actually denigrates females, appeals to so many women. It’s as inexplicable a phenomenon as why so many men embrace the slacker oafs of Apatow movies as role models. And just as sad.