Wednesday, May 26, 2010

'Sex' lands in the wrong city

The women of Sex and the City hit the road.

I'll try to do this without introducing a spoiler. There's a point in Sex and the City 2 at which one of the characters indulges in a forbidden kiss. I knew the moment that kiss arrived, the audience at a preview screening would gasp as audibly as if it had just learned that the government had decided to confiscate every pair of Manolo Blahniks in North America.

You get the idea. Sex and the City 2 is a chick flick on steroids - or is it estrogen? Whatever the hormonal enhancement, this exaggerated and cartoonish feature has wandered a long way from the HBO series that initiated the craze. What once seemed hip and knowing now seems spectacularly contrived. What was funny now feels forced, and the series' open-minded attitude toward sex has turned into parodic pandering, most of it focused on the insatiable carnal appetites of Samantha (Kim Cattrall).

Even on the small screen, Sex and the City walked a fine line between timely observation and superficial fluff, but the line seems to have been irrevocably crossed with a sequel that takes the familiar quartet of New York City women to Abu Dhabi, where they indulge their taste for excess along with disturbing amounts of cultural insensitivity.

The United Arab Emirates isn't the first stop made by a movie that never should have left Manhattan. That honor goes to Connecticut, where the women assemble for a gay wedding of two familiar characters (Mario Cantone and Willie Garson). The wedding is staged with hammy flare that includes a stereotypical double whammy: an all-male chorus and Liza Minnelli. This lengthy set piece has a tolerably silly gloss, but the movie quickly abandons itself to a recitation of Shrek-like woes.

Last week, Shrek Forever After introduced us to an ogre in mid-life crisis. In Sex and the City 2, the women also are wondering what's become of their old selves, with the exception of Samantha who's too busy fretting about becoming an old self. She's 52, and flooded with enough creams and hormones to require a dispensation from the FDA.
Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) -- a.k.a. Our Lady of the Garish Outfits -- has just written a marriage book called I Do, Do I? She's also wondering whether her marriage to Big (Chris Noth) can sustain the romantic sparkle that for so long characterized their relationship. As it turns out, Big is pretty much like every other guy; he likes to come home from work, sprawl on the couch and watch TV.

Charlotte (Kristen Davis) worries that her husband (Evan Handler) might have his eye on the voluptuous, braless Irish nanny who takes care of their two kids. Charlotte's also exasperated. She always wanted kids, but her two youngsters are more demanding than she could have imagined.

For her part, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), a high-powered attorney, is working for a chauvinist who doesn't value her opinions. Work isn't fulfilling; she's not cut out for full-time motherhood. What's a woman to do?

What all the women do is join Samantha on a trip to Abu Dhabi, which is being paid for by a wealthy hotel owner who thinks that Samantha might be able to help give his hotel a higher profile.

Sex and the City 2 contains a few chuckles, and the lavishness of the women's Abu Dhabi hotel digs - each has her own butler - offer pleasures akin to a trip to a luxury spa. To the extent that the Abu Dhabi scenes are rich with poolside luxury and sumptuous meals, the movie works as a fantasy travelogue.

But luxury only goes so far, and Sex and the City 2 -written and directed by Michael Patrick King -often makes the women seem dumber than trendy. The way Samantha operates in Abu Dhabi is out of sync with how a savvy PR woman would behave if she were in pursuit of a client. Samantha now seems charmless, a woman with a purse full of condoms and an eye for bulges in the bathing suits of young men.

I had an odd thought while watching what I once regarded as an amusing - if generally inconsequential -- look at a certain kind of New York City lifestyle. I kept thinking about Abbott and Costello movies with titles such as Abbott and Costello Go To Mars or Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion. Or more generously, the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movies. These stock entertainments put familiar characters into unfamiliar situations, banking on past affections and letting the chips fall where they might.

That kind of approach might have worked here if so much of the script hadn't presented these women in such sorry, superficial lights. When Carrie learns that The New Yorker has panned her latest book, I found myself cheering the unseen critic.

The movie, which lasts nearly two- and a-half-hours, probably will rake in enough money to keep its creators from having to shop at thrift stores. Sex and the City is more than an entertainment; it's a phenomenon, and it inspires women to dress up before they buy tickets. Who would have guessed that high heels and showy dresses could be accessorized with giant tubs of popcorn?

I suppose it's harmless fun, but Sex and City used to make room for glimmers of dramatic truth. Now, it's about massaging the fantasies of an audience that probably won't object to the fact that only Cynthia Nixon's performance seemed to be grounded in any sort of reality, that doesn't care whether the moments of female empowerment are so blatantly engineered they play like political lip-syncing and that's happy to watch a quintet of costume designers try to out-silly one another.

As for me? Well, I'm with Big on this one. Forget the sparkle, baby. Pass the remote

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