Silver Screen: Sex and the City II 1/2*
Wretched, aimless, and crushingly indulgent though it may be, you have to give it this: Sex and the City II at least reaches its nadir early on. It comes, after a brief prologue, during the movie's interminable opening sequence, a gay wedding that feels like the beginning of The Deer Hunter as reimagined by Carson from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. (As in The Deer Hunter, hours of atrocities will follow.) At what is presumably supposed to be the zenith of the ceremony, just after the release of the swans and the choir of not-funny-ha-ha dudes crooning "Sunrise, Sunset," inexplicable wedding officiator Liza Minnelli pronounces Stanford and Anthony (Willie Garson and Mario Cantone) husband and husband, then breaks into a song-and-dance number of the achingly ubiquitous "All the Single Ladies." No, it's worse. Not only is Liza dressed in sheer black tights and a jazzy dress so short she nearly flashes her boobs-- all the while looking like some terrifying collaboration between George A. Romero and Bob Fosse-- she's bizarrely shadowed by two comely young women who are clearly intended to look like she did back during the Kennedy administration. The effect is like some sort of time-machine experiment gone woefully awry, and I'm afraid the whole production might not only sour Americans on the perfectly reasonable notion of gay marriage, but discourage scientists from attempting time travel lest we inadvertently conjure this oblivious Minnelli-beast through the Stargate. Harrowing as this macabre scene is, it serves as a perfect metaphor for the Sex and the City franchise at this late date: Once possessed of vitality and verve, but now tired and too familiar and utterly unable to carry its former charms into the autumnal years. Back when it was a foundling half-hour series that helped launch HBO as the go-to network for innovative television, Sex and the City was all sass and spark. Sure, it was usually shallow and materialistic, but it was also funny and naughty and helped level the playing field, socially at least, for women in confident assertions of their sexuality. It was a trifle, but it was a good trifle, and the cutesy-catty dialogue and spicy subject matter kept it consistently entertaining. In the latter seasons it began to lose the zeal and lapsed into vapid drama, a trend greatly accelerated by the too-long and not nearly funny enough big-screen movie, which made the kind of crazy money the characters love to lavish in and pretty definitively tired up all the continuing stories' loose ends. It's difficult to view this moribund sequel as anything but a cash-in. Writer and director Michael Patrick King, who also created the series, hasn't even bothered to craft any real conflicts for the girls. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), married to dream-man Mister Big (Chris Noth), is filthy rich, publishing books, and living in a posh apartment with a closet the size of an entire bedroom-- but darnit, she's getting bored with the stay-at-home married life. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is happily settled down with Steve and her son while simultaneously working at a prestigious law firm, but her boss (Ron White, in the movie's weirdest blink-and-you'll-miss-it bit part) is mean to her. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is absolutely provided for by her oversized infant of a husband (Evan Handler), who has given her not only an adopted Asian daughter but a much more special real baby, however the kids cry a lot and need attention; this requires hiring a full-time live-in nanny (Alice Eve) who is so sexy she may be a threat to the marriage. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is just afraid she's getting too old and menopausal to bang younger guys. The solution to these non-crises: Take an all-expenses paid trip to hyper-extravagant Abu Dhabi, in the friendly United Arab Emirates. If it seems at all curious that four women who strongly identify as New Yorkers would choose to luxuriate in a country steeped in the same oil money and religious fundamentalism that helped destroy the two biggest buildings in their beloved city, then you're not paying attention-- they have cheap shoes there, and impoverished personal stewards imported from all over Asia and Africa to wait on tourists bejeweled hand and manicured foot. Apparently we're tipping them over there so we don't have to fight them over here. Eventually King and his aging gaggle of shopaholic harpies do get around to addressing the culture clash. I'll concede to getting a tingle of joy at watching Samantha shake a strip of condoms at a cluster of aghast, finger-wagging fundamentalist Muslims and shout, "That's right, I have sex!" But kicking around extremist religious scolds is second only to a boob shot on the list of things that give this reviewer a cheap thrill. An easy swipe at the oppression of women isn't enough to excuse the uniquely American odiousness in which the rest of the movie is drenched. Speaking of feminism, it's worth noting that the series's only actualized feminist, Miranda, who works hard and supports herself and her family and doesn't rely on a prince charming, has always gotten the short shrift on the show. In the sequel she's almost an afterthought, with both her conflict and Charlotte's gilded conundrum resolved literally in a couple sentences of chirpy Carrie voiceover narrative. Ironically, feminists apparently don't even earn two-thirds as much screentime as our romanticized romantic heroines.