When one is knowingly speaking to an audience mostly composed of males, sometimes it seems that uttering anything remotely positive about the Sex and the City franchise (in whatever format) is starkly forbidden territory. But the truth is that Sex and the City was a good television series. By any standard definition of quality televisual storytelling, Sex and the City, when viewed successively and in its entirety, clearly achieved quality through well-constructed multidimensional characters, clever writing, and a threaded plotline that amplified stakes and maintained audience interest. Yes, the show was occasionally problematic in its sometimes simplistic definition of feminism and preoccupation with material excess, but in comparison to the landscape of female-centric television at the time, the show was positively and outspokenly feminist (though, with convincing argument, not necessarily progressively so, but more on this in a later article) in its thorough and consistently entertaining exploration of the tensions that a specific type of modern woman encounters when attempting to juggle societal expectations with her own desires.
Sex and the City was never intended for my demographic, but I refuse to fault it for that, for in critiquing those media objects not intended for us, we must be careful not to confuse preferences of taste with quality. That being said, Sex and the City was also a good show because of its satisfying final episode, and the franchise by all means should have ended there.
Sex and the City 2 opens with the marriage of Stanford and Anthony, the respective gay confidants of Carrie and Charlotte, an opening sequence that seems to only exist as one long Liza Minnelli joke as any semblance of a plot-motivating conflict doesn’t begin until at least twenty minutes into the movie when Big and Carrie’s marriage shows signs of descending into boredom as the excitement of Carrie’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) single life transitions into the all-too-comfortable stasis of marriage. The conflicts of single life explored in the show makes the full transition to conflicts of marriage as Carrie, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) all battle the problems of life as a square. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) suddenly receives an opportunity to visit Abu Dhabi through a newly acquired client, thus creating the opportunity for the ladies to momentarily escape the respective problems. Drama and comedy ensue…or, at least, I assume that was the idea.
By comparison to the atrociously bad and suffocatingly self-serious first film, I can say that at least one virtue of the sequel is that, by having a sense of humor at all, it comes closer to the comedic-dramatic tonal balance of the series. Sex and the City 2, unlike its predecessor, should be noted for possessing something that actually resembles the structure of a feature film. There are three acts, a goal, a conflict, a narrative trajectory, closure, and stylistic formal decisions that actually resemble filmmaking rather than simply the act of projecting a television show on a bigger screen – all things that the haphazard and uninspired first feature were lacking in. But you know that when you have to list the bare minimum requirements for cogent filmmaking to find virtues, you have something far from an exceptional piece of cinema on your hands.
The Sex and the City films could easily be a case study on the differing potential utilities of television and film. In the series, conflict was able to play out throughout several episodes, thus possibly obtaining nuance and complexity. But the conflicts presented in Sex and the City 2 are trite, forced, skin-deep, motivated by the type of materialism that the series is so often criticized for possessing (the inception of Carrie and Big’s conflict, for instance, is manifested (or, at least, symbolized) by the fact that Big gives her a television rather than jewelry as an anniversary present, and their reunion at the film’s end is solidified by that exact type of adornment previously desired, giving a troubling weight to a correlation of things with happiness that not even the show embraced in total), and spurred by impossible coincidence that defies even movie logic (Carrie, by chance, running into Aiden in the Middle East).
For what seems like at least an hour of the film’s second act, the girls explore the Middle East without any basic narrative conflict whatsoever, reveling in the extravagance of their privilege while urging the audience to admire the spectacle of all the pretty-yet-insignificant goings on. And, in all honesty, if this was all the film wanted to be –superficial, meaningless, forgettable eye candy/wish-fulfillment – I was perfectly okay riding along with its own low standards and passively enjoying its stake-free alternate universe of a constructed black-and-white reality (my expectations, after all, were amongst the fossils after seeing the first film). This standard, of course, makes for something miles away from a good movie, but I won’t pretend it was excruciating. What was bothersome, however, was the film’s lazy injection of conflict, an injection that couldn’t manage to manifest any nuance or conviction within the film’s bloated running time.
But Sex and the City isn’t just a film whose poor storytelling is obscured by photogenic stimuli and the occasional endearing (though rarely earned) joke, it goes one thoroughly bizarre step further. Coming from a show that prided itself on exploring modern mainstream feminism, the scope of the franchise stretches beyond its grasp here as it chooses to explore issues of subjugation in conservative Muslim cultures. There’s certainly a lot to be said about this subject (though Sex and the City may not be the best forum for it), but the film seems to suggest that the imposition of one culture upon another to be the answer (Hollywood seems awfully preoccupied with white protagonists in the Middle East this summer, evidenced by the concurrence of this film’s release with that of Prince of Persia)
It irks me a great deal to see these characters criticize the politics of the UAE while their every wish is granted by that country’s servant class (they are literally being fanned in the desert at one point while they decry burkas – let’s call it Upper East Side neo-colonialism). Miranda, a character I’ve admired as she was typically the voice of reason on the show, continually counters Samantha’s brazen sexuality with “when in Rome…” negotiation. Her character has historically operated almost as a voice of the audience, commenting on the show’s occasional plunges into excess and absurdity, which suggests that show creator/film director Michael Patrick King is keenly aware of what he’s making all the way through (he really does seem like a bright guy). But Miranda’s voice is silenced in the final act and Sex and the City 2 suddenly delves into a strange, culturally insensitive Buster Keaton/Looney Tunes rampage through the streets of Abu Dhabi, and any overreaching attempt at feminist social commentary becomes muddled in the confounding mess of it all. I literally couldn’t believe what I was seeing in the final twenty minutes of this film.
In the end, Sex and the City 2 is simply unnecessary. It hardly warrants its own existence beyond being a curiosity piece for fans of the series – and fans who are this devoted to a series, quite frankly, deserve far better. As ¾ of these ladies are no longer having sex in the world of the single, and as they spend most of this movie out of the city, it becomes unavoidable that, even if you go halfway around the world searching for a story, there’s really nowhere else to go with these characters.
The Upside: Occasionally laugh-out-loud funny in the spirit of the show, provides some distracting photogenie.
The Downside: Superficial, forgettable, meaningless. It’s simply bad storytelling, and by the end quite offensive.
On the Side: The film was originally slated to shoot in Dubai until the city’s film commission found out what the subject matter was. The production was then slated to shoot in Abu Dhabi, but the same thing happened, so Sex and the City 2 ultimately shot in Morocco which posed as Abu Dhabi.