I am currently embroiled in various e-mail exchanges about Sex and the City 2 with three female friends and colleagues. We all dislike it -- no, dislike isn't the word. We think it's appalling.
The difference is that I, who had a love-hate relationship with the series, find it easy to lob insults, while they feel betrayed. They could live with the first movie, but here comes Sex and the City 2 to turn something that either challenged or inspired them -- or just gave them a blessed escape -- into an all-out drag show with arch one-liners and product placements and almost no emotional heft.
The Sex and the City dynamic has always been fragile. At its most affecting you could see beyond the materialism and artifice and feel the four female protagonists, Carrie and Miranda and Samantha and Charlotte, fighting for validation -- and connecting with one another via that struggle. They were dissimilar, but that was the point: They didn't threaten one another, they weren't catty in the way that so many female friendships are (falsely) portrayed onscreen. They could empathize but also offer detached and witty perspectives. And Carrie could try to sum it all up in her column.
Now, in Sex and the City 2, there's nothing left but surface. And what a surface: The movie is written and directed by Michael Patrick King, and I can almost hear him cackling as he cooked it up. "Let's start with an over-the-top gay wedding -- with Liza Minnelli marrying the couple! Then we'll send the girls to Abu Dhabi so they can rile up the fundamentalists with their revealing clothes and flagrant sexuality! Then they'll make fun of women in traditional black Muslim garb with lines like 'Certainly cuts down on the Botox bill!' -- but later they'll join these repressed women in campy feminist solidarity! And won't our girls look great swishing around the desert being waited on by smooth young Arab men?"
Well, no, they don't look great. And with their plastic smiles and their forced gaiety, scene after scene feels cringeworthy. The scene that is actually the best of them takes place at a lunch where Kim Cattrall's Samantha lays out her vitamins and pills, while Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie and Cynthia Nixon's Miranda look on in amazement:
"I'm on the one-a-day Fruity Pebbles plan," Miranda says, eying Samantha's pills.
"Women our age shouldn't joke about vitamins," replies Samantha.
"Women who are not our age shouldn't say 'Women our age,'" says Carrie.
Samantha sighs. "I am leading the way through the menopause maze," she says. "With my vitamins, my melatonin sleep patches, my Progesterone cream, a touch of testosterone ..."
"She's the hormone whisper," exclaims Carrie.
At least that scene introduces the theme of aging. The rest of the time Cattrall is wearing skimpy dresses and throwing herself at studly males.
There is a nominal plot: Since Carrie and Chris Noth's Mr. Big got married, he wants to stay home and watch old movies while she wants to go out. Miranda has troubles with her boss. Charlotte is taxed by motherhood.
In Abu Dhabi, where they accompany Samantha on a PR trip at the behest of a sheik, Carrie bumps into an old flame, Aidan, and feels a tug. But like every other scene, this one is full of melodramatic gestures, and the director's timing is so bad you can see every joke limping its way toward you from across the desert.
In a movie in which every entrance is meant to make you cry, "Fabulous!" -- in which Carrie's outfits cost as much as $50,000 -- it's worth saying that the designers and especially the cinematographer have not flattered the actresses. And Sarah Jessica Parker, a good comedian with endearing rocky poise, looks better when she's not swanning around.
For all the smutty double-entendres, Sex and the City 2 is a pale shade of vanilla -- except for one scene. Cattrall, stuffed in short shorts in an Arab marketplace, has a flurry of hot flashes, drops to the ground, and writhes around moaning, "I have sex, yes! I quite enjoy it!" Samantha's identity is so invested in her audacious sexuality that all the contradictions produce a convulsive fit, a fugue state. The scene pushes the boundaries -- I frankly had to avert my eyes -- but at least it connects with real longing, real desperation in ways that the rest of Sex and the City 2 doesn't come near.