What the movie accomplishes is beyond the constraints of mediocrity: there is almost a grandeur to be found in its overwhelming sense of audacity, even. Incompetent, meandering, ludicrous, fragmented and played with all the panache of a feminine hygiene commercial, our eyes transfix to the screen like witnesses to a disastrous public spectacle. Some bad movies announce themselves in subtle giveaways, but “Sex and the City 2” contains the rare distinction of straight-faced execution: its actors and filmmakers play through this terrible material as if ignorant of all the tarnish they are adding to the legacy of one of the great ensemble television comedies. And they don’t even have the courtesy to engage audiences without blatantly insulting them, either. The movie plunks down on screen, spasms around like it were caught in seizure, discharges a foul stench, and then collapses.
There is a scene early on that exemplifies this pattern. The four aged but likeable New York socialites – Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha – are all invited to the lavish wedding ceremony of two dear gay friends, and seem to wander into a production of the Ziegfeld Follies. Swans, singing choir boys and white tapestries adorn the set from every angle, suggesting maxed out credit cards. The two grooms seem like an odd match, but one warns us before the impending nuptials that he is “allowed to cheat” on his spouse after the ceremony – a detail that the ladies would have picked up on and analyzed to intriguing levels, had it occurred during the television run. But here they are dismissive of the announcement, and carry on as observers in this seemingly blissful wedding. The approach is indicative of a lazy streak that has been persistent in the writing long before the movies came to fruition, but that’s only a minor offense. Words escape me when the great Liza Minnelli shows up in a not-so-subtle cameo as the wedding minister, and then leads the reception into a glitzy performance of “Single Ladies” that inspires uncomfortable laughs.
The premise this time around: the girls are alienated with the hustle and bustle of marriage, and need an adventure that can shake up the monotony. Their solution: an elaborate vacation to Abu Dhabi, where Samantha hopes to do PR business with a wealthy Arab entrepreneur that has caught her attention. For each of the girls, their arrival in a foreign but thriving land could not have arrived at a more fitting time. Charlotte’s motherly demeanor has nearly cracked from constantly screaming and needy kids (not to mention subtle suspicion in her husband sleeping with the nanny), while Samantha ingests vitamins like candy in order to keep signs of menopause at bay. Miranda, meanwhile, has lost patience with her chauvinistic boss at her law firm, and Carrie has reached the point in her personal life where the romanticized veneer of courtship has dissolved into a foray of tiresome relationship clichés. You can’t really sympathize with her much, alas: when you marry a guy whose only distinguishing characteristic is that he answers to a three-letter nickname, you get what you deserve.
What exactly does the audience deserve though, especially so late in this cycle? Lots of laughs, of course. But “Sex and the City 2” literally has none in its arsenal. Nada. Zero. Zilch. I know because I kept track. Oh, there are certainly indications of attempts at chuckles here, but the screenplay seems alarmingly content to simply set up a joke and expect the chemistry of its stars to do all the leg work. The problem there is that the ladies are sleepwalking through the material like it were a contractual obligation, and their characters have long settled past that point of caring what the world has to offer them. They slog their way past plot devices as if they are mere road obstacles, and when they are cornered by situations that are meant to inspire personal embarrassment, it is the audience that feels the real shame. After watching their antics for well over decade, have they really learned nothing from their own history? Is Samantha still so sex hungry that she is blissfully ignorant to the social taboos of groping a man out in public near observant Arabs? And when Carrie unexpectedly wanders into the path of former lover Aidan (John Corbett), is she really still so blind to the attraction that she is willing to tango with the forbidden, despite the fact that she is in a marriage she takes very seriously? These realizations are not funny; they’re depressing.
Many of the isolated sight gags are downright dismal. Consider a sequence in which the four women, sitting together at a bar in Abu Dhabi, hop up on stage for a karaoke performance of “I Am Woman.” The payoff: there is none. It’s just a filler moment, and a rather bizarre one at that. Another: the girls glare disapprovingly at their husbands as they watch Charlotte’s bra-less nanny bounce up and down while playing with their children, and her breasts seem to command slow motion attention of the camera lens. How utterly original. Later still, the girls are forced out of their elaborate hotel suites when Samantha’s public come-ons from the night before have caused them great dishonor, and they rush through the busy streets in a desperate attempt to catch a flight back to the States – but not before Samantha has an elaborate vulgar outburst in a crowd of disapproving old foreign men after condoms fall out of her purse. Most movies would see these flat-lined moments as fodder for the cutting room floor, but “Sex and the City 2” places them at the center of a very flimsy premise, as if lost commodities searching for reason.
But we all know there is no reason for much of the material in “Sex and the City 2,” other than the dogged hope that it would give the studio a few extra pennies to rub together. Never mind the fact that its talented actors sacrifice their integrity for the sake of embarrassing themselves. Never mind that its director and writer, Michael Patrick King, seems content to fashion a screenplay essentially out of shapeless plot situations and zingers that are akin to subpar leftovers. And never mind that audiences are here not out of curiosity, but out of loyalty – and when motives to show up are inspired by such noteworthy allegiance, it only makes the failure of it all so much more unforgivable. Yet I suspect the legacy of these four to live on, their mark already established by six years of entertaining television, and a presence across mediums that establishes them as archetypes for the type of taboo parley many are still afraid to discuss out in the open. “Sex and the City 2” will fit into this all as well, but certainly not in the capacity anyone involved might have desired. This is the kind of movie that its participants refer to in small, dismissive groans at reunion parties.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Comedy (US); 2010; Rated R for some strong sexual content and language; Running Time: 146 Minutes
Sarah Jessica Parker: Carrie Bradshaw
Chris Noth: Big
Cynthia Nixon: Miranda Hobbs
Kim Cattrall: Samantha Jones
Kristin Davis: Charlotte York
John Corbett: Aidan
Produced by Zakaria Alaoui, Richard Brener, Eric M. Cyphers, Toby Emmerich, Michael Patrick King, John P. Melfi, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tiffany Hayzlett Parker, Melinda Relyea, Darren Star and Marcus Viscidi; Directed and Written by Michael Patrick King