Carrie Bradshaw was getting married to Mr. Big last we saw her. And two of her three friends, Charlotte and Miranda, are also married. That turns the tables on Sex and the City's typical obsession with the salacious splendor of singledom. But it doesn't reinvent the ethos.
Because the sex part is still here. (Samantha's still hooking up with, well, just about anything that moves.) And the city part is still here. (Even Miley Cyrus shows up for a big movie premiere party.) Just add to that the trials and tribulations of marriage and motherhood—and tack a 2 on the end of the title.
Still, between trouble at work, trouble at home and trouble with their bodies (Samantha is going through menopause—loudly and with liberal use of libido-promoting, hot flash-preventing pills and creams), the girls of Gotham desperately need a break from their hyper-privileged, upper-class Manhattanite lifestyles. So they jet off across eight time zones to Abu Dhabi, with more clothing and accessories in tow than the entire population of Rhode Island could possibly wear in a month. An ironic detail, come to think of it, since these women are often shown wearing next to nothing.
Of course, all mayhem breaks out once the gang's in the Middle East, what with Samantha getting arrested for publicly kissing a man on a beach and Carrie having dinner with an old boyfriend who just so happens to show up at a local market. It's time to head home—and fast. After all, if they don't make it to the airport on time, they'll suffer the monstrous indignity of flying coach.
Just as the television series and first movie did, Sex and the City 2 highlights friendship. These four women would do anything for each other, and they count on each other for fun and support.
But that's not really what this particular franchise installment is about. In multiple ways, and from multiple angles, we're told that marriage is a profoundly important commitment and should be honored in many small ways and one big way: fidelity. Carrie and Mr. Big talk constantly about how to make their marriage better. Some of their ideas fall flat. But others fly high.
When he buys a TV for their bedroom—ostensibly so they can cuddle up and watch old black-and-white romances together—she instinctively knows that instead of creating sparks, the gleaming flat-screen will trim down their treasured moments together. In other words, it'll get in the way of their intimacy.
And so she fights for their right to talk and stay connected sexually.
Much more significant than that is a sequence involving her kissing an old flame. She meets Aidan unexpectedly while in Abu Dhabi and agrees to have dinner with him. As they're parting afterwards, they impulsively hug and kiss. Carrie is immediately horrified that she's allowed herself to "cheat" on Big in this way. And over the protests of her girlfriends, she quickly calls Big to confess. (She can't bear the weight of hiding anything from him.)
Big is, naturally, devastated. And he hangs up on her. But the story doesn't end there. Carrie remains repentant. And Big begins brainstorming. Knowing that she's resisted wearing a diamond wedding ring because she's always been uncomfortable with the overwhelming tradition of it all, he buys her a huge one—lovingly placing it on her finger and telling her that her "punishment" is to wear it every day to remind herself of what marriage really is. She accepts it with gratitude.
(Of course, Sex and the City 2 ends up spraying battery acid all over that message by using it as an umbrella for both straight and gay relationships. And it loudly squawks about Samantha's right—nay, responsibility—to live it up and sex it up with as many men as possible because she's still single. But in some ways, SATC's incredibly immoral backdrop may make its attentiveness to marital bonding and fidelity all the more visceral—if not accessible.)
Elsewhere, children are called blessings though they're deemed exceedingly difficult to raise. Miranda and Charlotte both struggle with parenting—sometimes ludicrously so—but love their families deeply and admire mothers who don't have the full-time childcare help they have.
Carrie helps a needy butler, giving him airfare to see his wife in India.
Twice in Abu Dhabi a Muslim call to prayer is heard. Fate is discussed.
The movie gets rolling with lengthy scenes from the Connecticut gay wedding (because it's legal there) of two of the ladies' male friends, Stan and Anthony. This is also where the "What does it mean to cheat?" motif gets started: One of the men grins about the fact that he's made a deal with his partner to be allowed to sleep around.
The issue of cheating also rears its head—at least in Charlotte's mind—when she starts to suspect that her husband is having an affair with their nanny. (They're not. How could they, the movie guffaws, since the "hot nanny" prefers "other hot nannies.")
The nanny wears revealing white tank tops without a bra. The camera slows down time for closer, ogling looks as she runs, jumps and gets soaked with water. Men in Speedos get similar leering attention. Erections are visible through men's clothing.
It's implied that Carrie and Mr. Big have sex. But there's nothing at all implied about Samantha's sexual proclivities. We hear her screaming with ecstasy during one fling. (Carrie and Big make a joke about it.) And in two separate encounters we see her and her partners—mostly to fully naked and fully visible—engaged in intercourse. Onscreen sexual movements are graphic.
Samantha's whole life revolves around brash exhibitionism and sex. Even in her office, visible to colleagues and the camera, she applies menopause creams with her panties pulled down. She flaunts herself in Abu Dhabi, going so far as to touch her date's crotch and mimic fellatio on a hookah pipe to entice him.
There are many (tiresome and juvenile) jokes made about homosexuality, male and female anatomy, oral sex and erections. Group sex is mentioned, and triumphantly so. A man's name is turned into a graphic sexual pun, and a woman's ill-fitting pants are seen in close-up as a gag. Arabs are said to be "backward" sexually, and Samantha flips off a number of them, gesturing with her hips and screaming that they can't condemn her for having sex. It's pointed out that religious Muslim men force women to wear burqas on the street but ogle sensual belly dancers in nightclubs.
Mr. Big is hit on by another man and says it makes him feel like he's "still got it." Straight and gay couples alike kiss and flirt, sometimes passionately. Liza Minnelli performs Beyoncé's suggestive "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" routine at the two men's wedding.
Dresses are tight and revealing. One of Miranda's has a neckline that dips to her waist. Bikinis and lingerie also get screen time—sometimes for lengthy periods. Condoms makes several appearances.
Samantha gets caught in a public market, surrounded by Arab men who yell and loom menacingly, outraged by her sexually provocative dress and behavior. She gets into a minor scuffle with a street vendor as they both pull at her purse.
Crude or Profane Language
Ten f-words and a couple of s-words. God's name is misused a dozen or so times; Christ's is abused once. Crude language includes "t-ts," "h‑‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑" and "b‑‑tard." Samantha makes obscene gestures, both with her fingers and her hips.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A man remembers being hooked on cocaine, and Aidan says he did peyote. Samantha and one of her boy toys smoke a hookah.
Champagne, cocktails and straight hard liquor are imbibed at the wedding, during meals, on apparent whims and for some Dutch courage before Mr. Big leaves to go to an event he'd rather avoid. Charlotte gets drunk after Miranda practically orders her to drink her troubles under the table.
Other Negative Elements
Materialism is ogled and adored. Repeatedly. So much so that these women wear vintage designer duds to ride camels in the desert. "Sex and the City 2 goes so far beyond mere wealth porn that it tips into a sci-fi/fantasy mindset," writes Matt Zoller Seitz for ifc.com. But, he continues, it's "more than harmless escapism. It's an accidental candid snapshot of the sick, dying heart of America, a film so pleased with its vacuous, trashy, art-free extravagance that its poster should be taped to the dingy walls of terrorist sleeper agents worldwide."
The women's interactions with the people and culture of Abu Dhabi ranges from bumbling to downright insulting. Stereotypes and caricatures run rampant. Eric Childress of efilmcritic.com went so far as to say this movie raised "our [terrorism] threat level from yellow to red in 146 minutes." Roger Ebert says of City's characters, "Some of these people make my skin crawl."
I saw Sex and the City 2 on opening day at a midnight showing, assuming it would be less crowded and quieter than one at 7 p.m. Instead, I was astonished by how many people, mostly women, attended. Many of these ladies were heavily made up and wearing slinky, short, low-cut dresses and high heels, clearly mimicking the look and sensibility of the franchise they'd invested themselves in.
I quickly realized that these fans weren't merely watching Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte. They were living vicariously through them. And why not? Even burqa-clad Middle Eastern women, the movie chuckles, long for their decadent, fashion-obsessed lifestyle.
But they also long for the relationships they see modeled. So the question is whether women (and girls—Miley Cyrus isn't just in this film, she's a fan, too) can sort out the good from the bad, the moral from the immoral, the tasteful from the tasteless. Some surely can. But most?
As Carrie and Big's inspiring effort to keep their marriage fresh and full of "sparkle" mingles with this famous foursome's obscene self-indulgence, self-centeredness and general cluelessness, the result isn't six of one, half a dozen of the other. That's not the way spiritual math works. The sum is actually 12 rotten eggs. Here's why:
"Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be," writes James in the New Testament. "Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water."
Plugged In takes pains to point out positives wherever they may be found—even in putrid places. But it's never done in an effort to excuse or legitimize. And never has that been more true than in this particular case.
In her review of the first Sex and the City movie, Lindy Keffer called the script's praise of marriage "contrarian." And so it is again here. But, again, it doesn't wipe away absolute devotion to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life and the glory of haute couture.
There's a scene in which Mr. Big and Carrie watch the classic movie It Happened One Night. When Claudette Colbert bares her leg to hitch a ride from a passing driver, Carrie sarcastically, almost disdainfully, calls it "shocking" behavior. Oh how I wish it still were. Because SATC2's vision of modern sexuality and overt consumption has far too many real-life parallels for comfort—as movies prompt desires and desires prompt actions and actions prompt more movies about desires and the actions they inspire.
The cycle never subsides. And Sex and the City doesn't want it to.