I've been defending Sex and the City for years now, to New Yorkers sick of the bedazzled tourists clogging the sidewalks outside Magnolia Bakery, to men convinced the show was about hating the other sex, to intellectuals who thought something so frothy and fun couldn't have anything worthwhile to say about feminism and sexual agency for women. Sure, the first movie made it harder to defend, what with its theme song about looking for labels and love and completely bloated running time, but the movie was a hit both with the giggling girlfriends who were thrilled by the penis jokes and those of us who loved the show for its subtler, smaller truths.
When it comes to the sequel, though, I don't know what to tell you-- in nearly every way Sex and the City 2 is a gross caricature of the show, loud and garish and indulgent in a way even Carrie, at her deepest moments of fetishizing shoes and real estate, couldn't have comprehended 10 years ago. Transplanting most of the action to Abu Dhabi is a large part of the problem, as it cuts the women off from their real lives we're invested in and allows writer-director Michael Patrick King to devote 10 minutes to ogling the furnishings in their hotel suite, or construct an entire subplot about a gay attendant named Abdul. Without the city and their lives to ground them, Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte become the punny, over-indulged stereotypes that haters of the show always falsely claimed them to be. It hurts to see them proven right.
Then again, things aren't that much better back in the city. After a goofy little sequence that sees the girls walking down 5th Avenue and flashes back to their 80s fashion, the opening of the film takes place at the wedding of Stanford (Willie Garson) and Anthony (Mario Cantone), two characters who hated one another throughout the show and don't seem to have warmed up all that much. The wedding is an excuse for tons of vaguely homophobic "It's OK because we're gay!" jokes, from the awkward-- Liza Minnelli officiating the wedding and performing "Single Ladies"-- to the oddly appropriate-- Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) wearing a tuxedo to be Stanford's Best Woman. The wedding also sets up the token conflicts of the film for each of the characters, nearly all of which will be set aside when they board the jet to Abu Dhabi. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is frustrated with a nasty boss at work, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is overwhelmed by motherhood and a little jealous of the new nanny (Alice Eve), and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is hitting menopause and determined to fight it. None of these plots would have been enough to fill a standard 22 minute episode of the show, but don't worry, there's plenty of fashion and jewelry to pad things out.
Somewhat miraculously, Carrie's story actually hits home. She and Mr. Big (Chris Noth) have been happily married for two years and agree not to have kids, but social butterfly Carrie is frustrated that Big would rather stay home and watch Deadliest Catch. She carries some of these frustrations and nostalgia for her single girl life on Samantha's PR-funded trip to Abu Dhabi where, conveniently, she runs into old flame Aidan (John Corbett). You can see her dilemma coming from a mile away, and it's basically what she went through in Season 3 when Aidan wanted her to commit, but it's the single instance of human emotion in four characters who spend the rest of their visit to the Middle East gawking at women in burkas and being waited on by fleets of hotel staff.
It's not just that everything that happens in Abu Dhabi asks us to root for a bunch of ugly Americans who can't even visit the local market without making fools of themselves. It's that nothing these women do, from singing "I Am Woman" at a glitzy karaoke club to being fanned by attendants in the desert, resemble the people we knew over six seasons of the TV show. Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda have been replaced by wax figure replicas, sporting the same catchphrases and general fashion sense, but no longer resembling the women viewers related to so intimately. It gets a little better every time they actually talk to each other-- Miranda and Charlotte have a touching heart to heart over cocktails, and Carrie apologizes memorably to Charlotte for judging her marriage-- but the actresses are kept too busy shrieking over some new indulgence or adventure to have much time for real conversation. It's as if King assumed the audiences would be too busy shrieking alongside them to listen anyway.
They all return to New York for a brief denouement, and it's a remarkable relief to see Mr. Big again, to be inside the apartment he and Carrie have furnished together and to feel, once again, a tangible connection to them as people. During that last scene between Parker and Noth, two actors who are as much fun to see together as they were in 1998, you see it again, that little spark that made the show and even the first movie something more than a vehicle to sell Manolos. There's a beating human heart at the origin of the Sex and the City behemoth, but this unwelcome, undignified sequel does everything it can to bury it beneath big pink rhinestones it thinks the fans want.