Film Torments: Sex and the City 2 (2010)

THIS TIME on Torments, Dan looks at a facile mess.

The original Sex and the City television series, from the scant few episodes I caught on Bravo past midnight as a teenager, was an occasionally amusing and always engaging show that rarely resorted to convention or archetype. Its premise alone was unconventional; centring on the social and sexual lives of four 30-something women coping with the metropolitan bustle of The Big Apple, it was brash, bold and mature. Whether it was strictly ‘feminist’ remains – and always has been – debateable, but its impact is palpable to this day. Put simply, the series is everything its cinematic progeny is not.

The recent announcement of a third film’s cancellation has thrown its predecessors back into the spotlight. The first film – bloated, sucrose and consequence-free as it remains – is harmless fluff, designed to placate fans of the series with a feel-good reunion that primarily served as a reset button: Nothing happens, and everything is fine by the end. Everyone looks like they’re having a gay old time getting the band back together and it’s difficult not to be bundled along with that kind of infectious enthusiasm.

Critical indifference and commercial triumph, naturally, resulted in clamour for a sequel. So everybody signed on, however many months passed, and Sex and the City 2 released to cinemas in the balmy summer of 2010. I happened to be working – for an ego-shatteringly brief month – in my local picture-house at the time, and had the greatest fortune to watch Sex and the City 2 at least four times. Seated at the back, ostensibly looking out for screeching teens, I observed the muted shock of an audience witnessing a disaster unfold on-screen. There were no laughs. There were no sighs. Only silence greeted Carrie and co.’s contrived misadventures. They milled out of the screening in silence, stricken by a Versace-sponsored PTSD. They left the cinema in silence.

And then I got sacked.

Silence and scorn are the only appropriate responses to Sex and the City 2. It’s a depressing trudge through bourgeois effervescence for 150 crawling minutes, revolving around vapid caricatures whose divorce from reality is all-consuming and absolute. There’s nothing left of the charm, maturity or wit from the series, having been systematically weeded out by stereotypes and clichés. All that remains is a solemn march through a barren desert of laughs, with harpies screeching, “Lawrence of my labia!”

Michael Patrick King, show-runner for the series, wrote and directed both the original film and it sequel. For a man who was there for the show’s heyday – who was, in fact, its architect – to misunderstand his baby so apocalyptically should be hysterical, but that would imply the film has a sense of humour. Well, it does have one – it’s vindictive, victimised and virulent, infecting a tawdry script that adds nothing to existing characters, botches new ones and ham-handedly doles out judgement on cultures that aren’t based in Americana jingoism.

Like all good television-to-film adaptations, Sex and the City 2 is so bereft of ideas that the girls need to take a holiday, a la Kevin and Perry Go Large or Harry Hill: The Movie. Throwing a dart at a spinning globe, it’s off to Abu Dhabi, where Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) can mope about Mr. Big (Chris Noth) and his romantic gift of a big-screen telly to watch silent movies in bed with. There, she and her cronies get up to all sorts of cringing mischief, like commenting on camel toes and having illegal sex on the beach.

Honestly, there’s no plot to discuss. Most of the exorbitant run-time is dedicated to ‘character’ moments, like Charlotte’s (Kristin Davis) distress at having to look after her young children, and oh! how awful it must be for mothers without the wealth for nannies! Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is staving off the menopause with bogus hormone therapy, while Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) quits her high-flying law firm job without so much as consulting her family. And why would she? Money is pouring out of their eyeballs – I mean, what’s a job?

Wealth is immaterial to these women, so off they jet to Abu Dhabi to swan around in expensive hotels and marvel at the South African rugby team. Carrie meets Aidan (John Corbett), an old flame, in contrived circumstances, and promptly snogs him, thus completing her arc from self-obsessed materialist to retrograde sociopath. Literally nothing happens for about 90 minutes at this point. You may think otherwise, if you qualify the girls inexplicably getting a club raving with their karaoke rendition of ‘I Am Woman’ as “something happening”, but I can assure you it’s not.

Stakes-less and consequence-free, the film crawls on, as the women pass disparaging comment on foreign customs, until the great denouement. Faced with deportation, the girls nearly incite a riot as Samantha hurls condoms at outraged men, until a group of robed women pull them aside and reveal that – shock! – they’re just as vacuous as the Western harpies, showing off the latest haute couture with a reverence approaching zealotry. It’s a jaw-dropping moment that’s meant to elicit solidarity, but it’s actually as crass, pointless and offensive as a pork rotisserie at a bar mitzvah.

The insipid plot isn’t helped by its performances. Presumably, Michael Patrick King instructed the four leads to take the most hideous aspect of their characters’ personalities and amplify them, resulting in a screechy Charlotte, a Mae West-ified Samantha and a waspish Carrie. Only Miranda emerges relatively unscathed, thanks in large part to Cynthia Nixon’s apparent refusal to camp it up. In relative terms, she gives the only grounded performance of the cast, who more often than not resort to wailing histrionics to get the laughs that never come.

The ethos was evidently – no pun intended – go big or go home. As a result, all aspects of the $95 million production are heightened to absurd degrees. The lighting, the camera work, the music; all are exaggerated to fit the rarefied air of camp the film so desperately strives for and so abjectly fails to achieve. It’s trying so hard to make us laugh and failing so obliquely that it’s almost – almost – funny in the irony. Liza Minnelli appears, at a gay wedding, to perform a hideous rendition of ‘Single Ladies’ – funny! Charlotte’s nanny, Erin (a thankless Alice Eve), doesn’t wear a bra – funny! Samantha’s oestrogen is confiscated at the airport – funny!

Everything in the film is an exclamation mark. There’s no time to soak in the proceedings – in a two and a half hour film – because we’re already steamrolling along to the next contrivance. It’s an exhausting, exasperating sit that expects, nay, demands its audience to empathise with grown-up Bratz dolls: pampered, vain, meretricious cartoons, utterly unaware of their fortune in life, complaining about hardship from the tallest of ivory towers.

It’s easy to hold Sex and the City 2 in the deepest of contempt, and I do, but it’s ultimately a crying shame. Neither film adaptation capitalised on what made the series successful in the first place – compelling characters in (somewhat) believable scenarios and sparky leads with chemistry to spare. What remains is a husk; an extended tantrum that so abjectly fails to replicate the charm of the series, it doesn’t even deserve the same name.

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