There's a scene toward the end of Michael Patrick King's Sex and the City 2 where Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), visiting her old apartment (unsellable because of the dire housing market), tellingly places a copy of her latest book, I Do, Do I?, adjacent to Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. Unless Michael Patrick King is trying to tell us critics something, you have to wonder: Has Carrie Bradshaw even read Susan Sontag? Given that she's the antithesis of almost everything Sontag still represents as a woman and a feminist, it's certainly doubtful (her unironic sense of style suggests she's unfamiliar even with “Notes on Camp”), but like everything in Carrie's life, the book is merely a statement of fashion, though this particular one is worn primarily by King. Is the disingenuous placement of the book on Carrie's shelf merely the writer-director's winkingly insecure way of acknowledging that, while his sense of comic style suggests an affinity to the work of Garry Marshall (that pillow-humping dog doesn't lie!), he's still allowed to call Preston Sturges his favorite filmmaker?
The first Sex and the City movie's opening title sequence set its offensive tone, and this one follows in similar fashion, with the camera soaringly descending on the diamond-crusted island of Manhattan while Alicia Keys's “Empire State of Mind” plays on the soundtrack. What the empire state of mind means for the taxi-hailing Carrie is measuring the city's worth in relationship to her arriving there “once upon a long time ago,” describing the years before 1986 as, gulp, “New York City B.C.”—or, Before Carrie. You may—and should—cringe at her chirpily childlike and pun-y way with words, but her attitude still shouldn't come as a shock to anyone, because wasn't Sex and the City always about its fairy-tale princess of a protagonist's Kraken-sized self-absorption and craven celebration of luxe?
If Sex and the City 2 is even less significant than its predecessor, it's because it runs on one less interesting storyline. The first one had only two: the ballsy consideration of Miranda's marital woes, suggesting she was almost as much to blame for Steve's infidelity as he was, and Samantha's struggle to assert her independence without betraying her promise of monogamy to Smith. This time around, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) deals—and quickly so—with a male co-worker who keeps silencing her with his hand (lame) while Samantha partakes in a Suzanne Somers diet regiment to quell her menopause symptoms (lamer). Charlotte (Kristin Davis) uninterestingly grapples with the stress of motherhood, irrationally insecure about the wonderful but perpetually bra-less nanny that takes care of her kids, but King sensitively, almost near-obsessively, lingers on Carrie's anxiety over trying to make sense of her marital needs and how they conflict with Mr. Big's own. They fight like a couple that sincerely wants to survive, working their way toward compromise and an understanding that a relationship need not be traditional in order to succeed. Throughout these surprisingly un-hysterical scenes, Carrie has never felt more credibly torn or human.
Before you peg me for a non-fan, understand that the Sex and the City movies don't hold up to the TV show because they're awfully short on what made the program frequently special: its sweet, arguably idealistic vision of female friendship. Sex and the City 2 works when it remembers that ethos, as in a scene where Carrie, vacationing with the girls in Abu Dhabi, hurts Charlotte's feelings by using her insecurities against her before meeting up with Aiden (John Corbett) for dinner, leaving Miranda to soothe Charlotte's frayed nerves. Regardless of their privilege and King's grotesque insistence on reminding us of that privilege (what they can afford to wear and eat and how they're only too happy to exploit whatever riches anyone, especially men, are willing to lavish on them), in their occasional heart-to-hearts you get a real sense for how women rely on each other's friendships in order to remain sane. (Spoilers herein.)
The show was also notable for its empowering salute to female sexual agency, but what was sexy on television feels gross on the big screen. In their Abu Dhabi hotel, the girls gripe about their problems poolside, and King's camera leers, along with Samantha, at an entire Australian swim team nearly bulging out of their Speedos. (Hot, yes, but this isn't Falcon's Dripping Wet 2, and far from the more sophisticated eroticism—like Claudette Colbert hitching up her skirt in It Happened One Night—that King is truly but lazily after.) Later, when Samantha gets in trouble for getting too chummy with a potential beau near a very conservative man and his burkha-clad wife, they run away to the beach—but not before we get an eyeful of the raging boner Samantha wants to put inside her “Lawrence of my labia.” That god-awful pun is one of many in this embarrassingly scripted movie, which has the girls at one point sing Karaoke to “I Am Woman” with such verve and conviction that all the women in the room—young and old, tourists all—stand up and applaud with such exhilaration you'd think they were celebrating the eradication of sexism from the Middle East.
Such is the arrogance of this self-congratulatory movie. It takes the Sex and the City girls to the Middle East so they can cavalierly thumb their nose at the region's retrograde gender politics. In scene after scene, Miranda struggles to get Samantha to cover herself up, and after Samantha is arrested and the girls go to a market to retrieve Carrie's misplaced passport and Samantha's piñata-like purse spills out her supply of condoms, the ladies are practically stoned to death. Saved by a group of women who dress them in getaway burkhas, the girls are congratulated for their affront, ostensibly because their behavior will linger in the minds of the men who witnessed the incident and, as a result, help to chip away at their chauvinism.
It's not an unrealistic assessment, but it's still Cosmopolitan-deep philosophizing, and when their saviors take off their burkhas to reveal that they buy the latest Madison Avenue fashions, you have to laugh at how King trivializes female experience by conflating Western and Middle-Eastern cultural mores, absurdly linking the fashionista to the feminist freedom fighter and suggesting that women can only relate to each other if they share the same taste in clothes. The film's protagonists may never give their Muslim sisters a second thought again, but they're deeper than that. King's fascist, superficial assessment of their intelligence insults them as the women we came to know them as on television, and no doubt has Sontag turning in her grave.