Friday, 4 June 2010

'Sex & the City 2' review: Shameless, tacky and unstoppable...

“Look! Arabic Pringles” says Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) as the camera goes into a shameless extreme close-up on the branded potato snacks. They have been provided by a Middle Eastern airline bringing her, along with her equally vacuous and materialistic friends, to a luxury holiday in Abu Dhabi. “We need to go somewhere rich” says Samantha (Kim Cattrall), when encouraging the “girls” to join her on this all expenses paid trip (their New York penthouses are not considered “rich” enough it would seem). Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) foolishly decides to bring a cultural guide book along and she is rightly derided for this with Carrie derisively asking “Are you moving there?” Indeed. Why would one want to know anything about the country they are visiting? As Samantha so rightly says on the eve of their trip east, “I can hear the decadence calling!” Welcome to the world of ‘Sex & the City 2’.

‘Sex & the City 2’, directed and written by Michael Patrick King (providing once and for all the infallibility of auteur theory), is an odd and strangely hypnotic film. I should have hated it to the core. However, not far in to its 146 minute running time I resolved that the film was a satire of its brazenly selfish, hedonistic and superficial protagonists and everything about their there way of life (so obviously hideous is everything they say and do and physically embody). Viewed in this way the film is sort of amusing. For instance, the horrifying cadaver that is Kim Cattrall (who I’m sure the writer thinks is a modern day Mae West) looks and acts exactly like Sam Lowry’s excessively vain mother in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian sci-fi movie ‘Brazil’, always boasting about how many treatments and injections she has endured all with the noble aim of fighting the aging process. “I am fifty-fucking-two and I will rock this dress!” she shouts at a hapless clothes store clerk in the manner of a demented and embarrassing old spinster aunt in a way which the film supposes is some sort of milestone for female empowerment.

Then we have Carrie whose ‘Wonder Years’ style disembodied narration serves as the film’s dubious moral centre. Carrie is a relationship columnist of international renown and acts as a sort of female version of the James Bond wish fulfilment fantasy. At one point she walks into a “wardrobe” bigger than most people’s bedrooms (and full of expensive designer clothes) and I distinctly heard two disparate ladies in the audience say “cool!” ‘Sex & the City’ is to women what ‘XXX’, ‘Fast and Furious’ and Danny Dyer movies are to men, in that they are not really for women at all: just for stupid people. If Samantha is deluded and slightly nauseating, then Carrie is just downright hateful. She makes her husband go out with her to a party, ditches him for her friends and then drags him home when she sees that he is starting to have fun (talking to Penelope “why am I here?” Cruz). For their anniversary her husband buys them both a flat screen television for the bedroom (getting a derisive chuckle from the ladies in the audience) but his intentions are decent and even romantic: he wants to lie with her and watch “old black and white films” in bed. She is indignant and, in the manner of an ungrateful child, says “a piece of jewellery would have been nice”. What a horrible person (but then Bond isn’t much better as a role model for male behaviour). Carrie and her friends feel like the subjects of an MTV reality show.

A bit huffy from television-gate, Carrie decides to spend a few days back at her old apartment. “The last two years haven’t been the best time to sell an apartment” she explains. It makes economic sense for her to keep the place empty and sell it on later and this is all that matters in her universe. Don’t worry about the people who are being forced out of their homes in the wake of global recession: they probably deserved it and in any case they are far too poor for us to care. So Carrie has two places and when she returns to this one after two years away, she finds it as she left it: fully furnished, with a huge, walk-in wardrobe (still full of high fashion clothes). But in this world Carrie isn’t disgusting at all, apparently.

And apparently neither is Charlotte (Kristin Davis) who denies her Jewish surname (Goldenblatt) as soon as they arrive in the Middle East in fear that it might spoil her time drinking cocktails by the pool. These are clearly people of principle. My personal favourite bit saw Carrie talking to one of her butlers in Abu Dhabi about the difficulties of maintaining a marriage. He explains to her that he is Indian and comes to Abu Dhabi to work, only flying back to see his wife when “I have time off work and can afford the plane fare”. But instead of this being a wake-up call to make Carrie see just how easy she and her pals have it (and to how sickeningly bourgeois their existence on this Earth has become) this story is mined for romance, with the manservant explaining that his love for his wife increases in their time apart. The grim economic reality of the poor people who pander to their every whim on the dessert resort (in a modern form of indentured servitude) is mentioned but simultaneously completely ignored.

The film can’t make up its mind what it thinks of the Middle East either. On the one hand we have Samantha gallivanting around the market square thrusting her hips and shouting “I have sex” at the local outraged men, her hands full of condoms (I am not making this up). On the other hand we have Miranda constantly trying to cover Samantha up and apologise for her behaviour. Together the women laugh at a lady in a burqa as she lifts her veil to eat French fries at the next table in a restaurant, but then they also gasp in wonder at the cultural sites they encounter on their trip and befriend a kindly man in the market (“shoes for everyone!”). Overall the cultural and historical morsels Miranda derives from her guide book (in the form of strained exposition) seem to serve as more of a disclaimer than anything else: giving the “girls” the right to say and do whatever grossly insensitive things they want to in this horrible movie. Generally their intolerance of local custom is played for laughs. The film’s crowning insult to the Middle East is in one the final scenes in Abu Dhabi, in which a group of women remove their burqas to reveal that underneath they are wearing similarly “fabulous” clothes to their American counterparts. You go girls! Whether you see this film as an example of cultural imperialism or of female empowerment you surely can not deny that it is unfailingly tacky.

There is so much more to find horrifying in this film. For instance, Liza Minnelli shows up as a singer at a gay wedding doing a version of Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ which makes you want to erase her entire career (even the stuff with Bob Fosse). There is a really cringe-worthy sub-plot involving a bra-less, Irish nanny and Charlotte’s basic inability to parent her own children: “and I have full-time help!” she says, admitting her own basic inability to function as a competent member of the human race. There is Samantha saying “word” without any trace of irony as well as the concept of an “interfriendshon”. There is a horrid karaoke scene in which the “girls” sing “I Am Woman”, swaying in unison and holding hands, forever uniting in bonds of unquestioning sisterhood. But what would be the point of going on about this obviously critic-proof film for any longer? “That should take the edge off the reviews” says Carrie, referring to Samantha’s admission that she will likely bed the star of a bad film. In the case of ‘Sex & the City 2’ good box-office will not only take the edge off the bad reviews, but will shred them into total and utter irrelevance.

'Sex & the City 2' is out everywhere now (including Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse) and is rated '15' by the BBFC.