Is Sex and the City 2 meant to be taken as the ultimate chick flick? Its 2008 precursor made an incredible $55.7 million in its opening weekend, and 85% of those in attendance were women. In Vogue’s May 2010 cover story on Sarah Jessica Parker (who plays the series’ protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw), writer Vicki Woods marvels at the “magical, amazing thing” that a third Sex and the City feature film could do: it’d “get millions of women… into movie theaters.”
Well, okay, but the fact is that in 2009 (a SATC-less year) in the United States, women already numbered 113 million total moviegoers, compared to 104 million men. That means women made up 55% of all ticket sales and accounted for more than half of moviegoers in all frequencies of attendance, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. (Take a moment to read those stats again. Think about the male-centric schlock and occasional weepy melodramas that habitually pass through multiplexes, and consider the nonexistent buying power of women’s movie ticket dollars.) Why then should this big-screen series be heralded as a cinematic respite for women? It’s clear it’s meant to stand as the ultimate girls’ night out; a celebration of women and their “strong female voices,” made for women, if not actually written or directed by a woman. And what does it amount to?
What all those millions spent in 2008 on SATC the First seems to have bought for women in this sequel is exactly what women want, according to writer and director Michael Patrick King: slow-motion close-ups on athlete abs and Speedo-swaddled packages, linen pants boners, walk-in closet porn, menopause humor, designer fashion labels on shopping spree bags, explicit sex, bad innuendo (“Lord of my labia,” everybody), and lux pampering courtesy of a very wealthy man.
Isn’t that but precisely some bizarro archetype of an inverse Apatow for ladies? And is that okay, or isn’t it? These women are sexually driven and in charge of their appetites, careerist and independent — but they’re also superficial and consumerist. Each of the four besties also gets a conflict to work through: Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) worries she and husband Mr. Big (Chris Noth) are turning into boring stay-at-homes; Charlotte (Kristin Davis) worries her hot nanny will tempt her husband; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) has to balance her career with motherhood; and Samantha (Kim Cattral) deals with menopause as adroitly as Elmer Fudd deals with Bugs Bunny, if not as humorously.
But is it entertaining? After all, it’s meant to be “a big, extravagant vacation,” director King has said. If it has its moments — and, sure, it does — it certainly doesn’t maintain momentum through each of its 146 minutes. It opens with the wedding of Carrie and Charlotte’s best gay friends — a very gay wedding, Mr. Big reminds Carrie over and over. She protests, saying it’s a wedding, not a gay wedding, until Liza Minnelli weds the “brooms” and performs Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” as swans frolic. It’s meant to force Carrie and the audience to concede that it is indeed a very gay wedding, but it more successfully establishes a clumsy Kathy Griffin-style approach to women and their cartoony pet gays.
The introduction, dealing-with, and resolution of most plot points and character conflicts play out this way, settling in the end on weak “I can see what you mean when you say that after all” notions of compromise. As far as realistically portraying women or placing female characters in positive scenarios, all the good work done in the movie’s best moment is completely undone by second-thought reconsideration at the film’s end. We see the four best friends rally around their “strong, female voices” that male critics and supervisors continuously seek to silence, which they rightly call bullshit. And later, after an unrelated, arguably minor incident with an ex, Carrie decides that maybe that caricature of her in The New Yorker, accompanying a review panning her book, was right to picture her mouth taped shut after all. What? For every positive step taken — like allowing Charlotte to be overwhelmed by her two young children, rather than unceasingly smitten, for which she feels excruciatingly guilty — two or more steps are taken backward to settle on a comfortable medium.
And as for the rest of the movie, it plainly relishes in straight up excess and indulgence, making an amusement park for Westerners out of “the Middle East,” even though the movie was shot in Morocco, on the opposite side of Africa from the actual Middle East — but that might just be whatever: a desert is a desert, right? The four women alternately flout local customs, make paltry shows of respect in the occasional offering of a shokran (“thank you”), or marvel at the foreignness of it all (“It’s a magic carpet ride!”), just to return home again after a round of finger wagging at a culture of sexual repression and restrictions on women they briefly encounter on a surface level. For a group of mature, savvy New Yorkers known and loved as the height of cosmopolitan chic, it all just seems just the tiniest touch gauche. Instead of an every-other-year blowout girl-fest caricature that arrives with an implied and be grateful for it, here’s to hoping women get the complex cinematic representations of themselves they’ve got the money for year round.