I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to SEX AND THE CITY 2 with bated breath. The first film version of the era-defining HBO series was unimaginative and uninvolving, and the advertisements for the new one, featuring an overly bedizened cast all striving mightily to prove that over-40 is still sexy, were off-putting, to say the least (although subway defacers have had a field day with the posters, taking particularly cruel aim at Sarah Jessica Parker).
What a delight, then, to report that this sequel is pretty damn terrific, everything SEX 1 was not in terms of fun, real glamour and alluring storyline. A problem with its predecessor was the inordinate focus on Carrie Bradshaw (Parker) and her eternal, tiresome problems with the commitment issues of her beloved Big, aka John Preston (Chris Noth). Her three BFFS Samantha (Kim Cattral), Charlotte (Kristen Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) were largely relegated to the sidelines and one rarely got the sense of what any of them did for a living to earn their posh lifestyles.
From the beginning flashbacks, when we see the ladies amusingly gotten up in the get-ups they wore upon arriving in NYC – Carrie as a Madonna wannabe, uptight Charlotte the staunch preppy, ever-serious Miranda as a hideously 1980s career-woman, and wild and crazy Samantha in CBGB’s punk rock drag – these dramatic issues have been beautifully righted in the new film: we actually see Carrie agonizing over meeting writing deadlines for an important VOGUE piece and negative reviews of her new book about the first two years of her marriage, I DO, DO I?; Miranda effectively deals with chauvinistic partners at her law firm; Samantha works her high-powered publicist’s wiles to score the girls a lavish, gratis trip to Abu Dhabi, and Charlotte contends with motherhood, with all of its attendant childish screaming tantrums and exhaustion.
The very idea of traditional marriage is provocatively called into question from the first scene, at the wedding of the series’ two favorite hag fags, Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson) and Anthony Marantino (Mario Cantone). However unlikely this pairing between these oil and vinegar gay types might be, we do learn that, in exchange for the over-the-top campy wedding, replete with swans and Liza Minnelli Stanford insists upon, Anthony gets to cheat. Miranda remains devoted to her job, a necessary part of her life, however it may absent her from her litle boy’s life. And writer/director Michael Patrick King has found an authentic, highly relatable story arc for Carrie with the boredom she feels at having finally landed Big – he will always be “Big,” incidentally, whatever name they choose to give him – only to find him all too content to stay home night after night on the couch in their lavish (overdecorated) condo, eating takeout food and watching the new flat screen. It’s a classic case of “be careful what you wish for” which could also realistically describe every marriage ever.
Having kept her bachelorette apartment, Carrie decides to escape for a few days there to get some writing done and “revisit
the clothes,” which ignites a proposal on the part of Big that they spend a couple of days apart from each other every week, a terrifying and yet tempting way to sustain interest in a marriage they’ve both definitely decided will be just about them, sans kids. A real escape hatch for Carrie is vouchsafed with that trip to Abu Dhavi, with Samantha announcing, “After two years of this bad economy, we need to go some place RICH!” You can practically feel the audience’s hearts jump in agreement.
“Rich” doesn’t begin to describe things, with Marrakesh gorgeously filling in for this United Arab Emirate (“Dubai is so over,” declaims one expert here), as, sponsored by an impossibly rich and generous sheikh the ladies find themselves esconced in a hotel that looks like something out of MGM’s 1944 KISMET, complete with personal valets (the gay one’s called “(Paula) Abdul”) and everything their avid hearts could possibly desire. John Thomas’ cinematography fills the screen with burnished hues and gorgeous desert vistas, while Aaron Zigman’s feverish Arab-tinged music score provides its own sexy exhilaration. The girls take the town by storm, natch, triumphing with a fun rendition of “I am Woman,” in what has to be the most opulent karaoke club in the universe. Davis and Nixon have their strongest moments in a shared drunken scene in which they dare each other to admit the true horror of being a parent. (Such is the goodwill generated by these characters that even when they wail “And we have help! How do the women without it do it?” and condescendingly drink a toast to those less fortunate you (almost) don’t hate them.) Carrie runs into her old love, the now also-married Aidan (John Corbett, more relaxed and attractive than ever) in the soukh, and has a very close sexual call with him that has her wracked with guilt, especially after she tells Big about it. Ever-horny Samantha chafes at the effects of menopause and the country’s sexual repression, gets arrested for public lewdness and has a meltdown in the marketplace, showing off way too much flesh and tossing condoms at a horde of infuriated men. Of course, this character has always been known for her outrageousness, but I couldn’t help feeling here that King really pushed the un-p.c. envelope, going far beyond the highly foreseeable joke of having the ladies disguise themselves in burkas, what with all of the threats posed on various people who choose to comment on Islam by certain unamused fundamentalist groups. Whether meant as a light laugh or actual indictment of repression, one sincerely hopes such reprisals will not be a result of this.
Everywhere else, things are kept souffle-light, and all I had to do was watch an entire row of blissfully absorbed female audience members at my preview – as entranced as a bunch of six-year-olds at Serendipity – to know that King has struck gold again, and this time, far more deservedly. The whole concept of the show has always been the purest glossy fantasy, yet I find it interesting that this doesn’t extend to the photography, which completely eschews any softening, youthful effects on the actresses. (Was Parker, as producer, all too aware of the sometimes risible results of an excess of gauzy focus from old Doris Day films, not to mention Lucille Ball’s MAME?) It’s refreshing to see that all four leads seem to have very little if anything done in terms of cosmetic surgery, but there’s no denying that, on Parker, especially, the lighting can be very harsh. Along with her evident charm and wit, I think her appeal has always been a certain Everygirl quality which, her sublime ability as a clotheshorse aside, stems from her lack of conventional facial beauty. This jolie laide quality, coupled with her penchant for carrying off the most extreme fashion, make her the cinematic Diana Vreeland, although that black lacy hat she dons for the Blatch-Marantino wedding is diabolically unflattering. On the other hand, the casually loose blazer she wears over a revealing evening sheath will probably be copied the world over. And who else but the Dior-mad T-shirted Parker could work a Zac Posen hoopskirt – her favorite ensemble in the film – while shopping in the soukh?
Sartorially speaking, Cattrall, the series’ beamingly constant, essential secret weapon, is the big winner here; in the desert scenes, Costumer Patricia Field almost seems to have taken a note from Marlene Dietrich in GARDEN OF ALLAH (maybe the most jaw-dropping Technicolor wardrobe in screen history), with her flowing draperies and cunning Cleopatra cap she wears for the inevitable camel ride. All interested women and more than a few men play the game “Which SEX AND THE CITY character are you?” and, for me, it’s always been Samantha, and here, when a condom pops out of her passport in Abu Dhabi, it’s every bit as funny for being oh so real. When a shopgirl has the temerity to suggest that a certain selection is too young for her, she silences her with, “I may be 52, but I will ROCK this dress!” which she does, even though Miley Cyrus turns up at the same event in it. But there are get-ups enough for all the ladies to satisfy the most craven fashionista, in a way to make even Norma Shearer in RIPTIDE look impoverished.
That other requisite of the show – hot man meat – is also on fulsomely piquant display. The first SEX AND THE CITY had that one, very late in the day, frontal scene of Gilles Marini to get panties all a-twist. Here, the party gets started early with a crew of international, bulgingly Speedo’ed soccer players staying at the hotel, and a couple of undraped moments for the partners of – who else, Samantha? – one of whom is a devastatingly dashing Danish character named Dick Spirt (!), played by Max Ryan, who makes a sensational entrance in a desert jeep.
At a running time of 146 minutes, the movie has already impressed some negative critics as overlong, but, although I felt this way about its predecessor, this skillful time around, it felt nothing but generous and, for true fans of the series, it will be one long, frivolously enjoyable orgasm. The good is so good here that it’s easy to overlook the bad, namely, King’s deathless penchant for labored puns: “inter-friend-tion,” “Lawrence of my labia,” “Bedouin Bath and Beyond.” (At one point, Carrie is seen reading Nancy Mitford’s wonderfully witty “Love in a Cold Climate” and I only wish King could sometimes elevate his tyle to that level. He can appropriate nicely, however, as witness a charming little steal from IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.) There are fun guest appearances from the luscious likes of PThe Pursuit of Love\\\enelope Cruz, as a sexy banker lady who briefly turns Big’s head, as well as talented New York stage stars, happy to be in even a minute of this, such as Norm Lewis (THE LITTLE MERMAID), Ryan Silverman (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), Condola Rashad (RUINED), Loretta Ables (SOUTH PACIFIC) and Kelli O’Hara (SOUTH PACIFIC), as a groupie whose sudden frostiness when Carrie expresses her desire to remain childless, reminded me of her frostiness to me at a New York event, following what had been a deliciously warm interview. (“She’s pregnant, must have been hormones,” someone explained to me.) And then there’s Liza, whose rendition of the now officially overdone “Single Ladies,” flanked by two Liza impersonators, defines a whole new level of cinematic camp, even if it seemed more in the style of Mama’s “Get Happy” rather than hiphop. In the hard times of the Depression, we had and NEEDED Rogers & Astaire, Deco dancing us into heaven, and Dietrich sweeping everyone exotically away, and now, with all this war and oil and collapse, four Manhattan ladies are doing the job quite nicely, thank you.