Friday, May 28, 2010

Squalor: Sex and the City 2 (but it's more complicated than that...)

Dear Reader,
Yesterday I rolled out of bed, showered, and did what 2 years ago would have been emotionally impossible: I got in my car with cranky sibling in tow and drove to the theater to pay, reluctantly, to view the early showing of Sex and the City 2.  I had to talk myself into this.  It was a process.  Every trailer, every online article and magazine cover was followed by a conversation that would go something like this:

Myself: You can't go to it, you know.  It's going to be terrible.  It will enrage you.  Don't you remember the first one?  Don't you remember what it was like?

Myself: Oh, I remember.  I've derided it like a fanboy trashes Episode I.  This will certainly be the most heinous example of faux-feminism and self-destruction of a series since the last round.  And yet...

Myself: No.  No 'and yet'.  Pull yourself together.  This pain you inflict upon yourself is the opposite of healthy...

Myself: ...but, I get to Squalor it.

Myself: Is that worth your sanity?

Myself: ...but... I get to Squalor it.

Myself: It's the glitter, isn't it?  You're a junkie and your addiction is totally masochistic.  Injecting that shit into your veins and imprinting it on your sockets will cut off the flow of blood to your brain. They'll only disappoint you.

Myself:  ...no, I need to do this for the blog.  I can't just go to movies I think I'll like...I must go forth.  I refused to see Shrek, I have to make this sacrifice. 

Myself: I'm breaking up with you.

I'm very conflicted.  But I went, dear Reader.  If the dialogue above didn't clue you in, let me spell it out: I hate. the. first. movie.  My hatred knows no bounds.  Seriously.  Ain't no mountain high enough. It was a no-hearts, slogging, painful exercise in misdirection and vapidity that was neither funny nor particularly poignant.  The film made its characters insufferable caricatures of what non-viewers had always assumed the show was about.  It was the leering antichrist of summer cinema and a gigantic anticlimax.  After six seasons of building somewhat problematic, but genuinely complicated female roles, the film squandered everything.  It destroyed its characters and left shadowy pod people wandering Manhattan like aging clothes hangers with stitched on zombie hands.  Thinking about it still makes me frustrated.  When yesterday arrived, I prepared to enter into battle with the screen.  I was 100% eye rolls and troubled sighs. I made snarky remarks as I  bought my ticket from the kid at the box office and slouched in with such low expectations and such a massive feeling of dread that, when the film actually started, I was surprised that I somehow managed to feel some brand of strange relief.

Needless to say, since watching all 2+ hours of Sex and the City 2 yesterday, I've become even more conflicted.  
I'm going to try and talk through this, but I fear my thoughts on the subject will be a convoluted work in progress.  At this point, there's a fair amount of assumed bias from all sides of the media.  Nobody is stepping into this film without some preconceived notions.  Crazy people are getting dolled up to sit in a popcorn crumbly theater seat, it feels like film critics have been panning the film for weeks prior to its release, and everyone with half a sociopolitical consciousness is crying foul on the grounds of rampant materialism, cultural insensitivity, and detrimental feminism.  On the one hand, I'd like to be quick to agree with the latter two.  I mean, we all know I get all blue in the face talking about the out and out offense that is Twilight.  Yet, on the other, I'm not so sure they're totally right, or if their opinion on what's ultimately a simple entertainment just happens to be another in vogue. 

For many in the still surprisingly male-dominated world of film criticism, the HBO original, uncut Sex and the City was a foreign language from the get-go.  There was an expressed lack of interest and an implied understanding (from those who had never watched) of Carrie & company as a group of promiscuous nags who gathered to discuss their shopping habits.  I'm going to put it outright: if you're a woman and you buy into that description, you should question your own levels of misogyny and reassess the value you place on blunt conversation with your own social group.  Even if they're not you, they're not that.  The problem, however, is that the first film blew up the script, upped the dramatic quotient, and failed.  That script wound up cementing those negative assessments of the women as fact for the show's ready and quick-witted detractors.  The result is that the memory of the original content has been tainted by expectations established from a dreadful first theatrical run.  Now, with all of these character references stored up in my memory banks and lightly blended with wardrobe lookbooks that emphasise the cost instead of the quirk, I'm confused. 

The sequel is in a grey area somewhere between those HBO half-hours and the silver screen.  In terms of levity, it's a marked improvement from the first film.  It's overly fluffy, but tolerable, and succeeds in being at least semi-entertaining.  It remembers, this time (however shallowly), that there are four primary protagonists (not just one), and that the story is ultimately about the bonds of friendship between women and not about the sex, the city, or the melodrama.  It also recalls that its roots were in scandalous, not fit for network primetime comedy...and that as such it is the female bromance, every bit as frank and politically incorrect.  What it does not remember is that it's still supposed to try and be clever, not get lazy and rely on the tried and cliche.  

Alright, let me actually try to break down the movie for you.  Two years after the action of the first film, time has passed, things have progressed.  There's an insipid opening credit sequence fully bedazzled, set to "Empire State of Mind", and marked by one of the worst first lines I've ever heard: "Once upon a time there was an island. Some Dutch, some Indians, and some beads."  See? Worst ever.  You're like, "did she say beads or beats?" for one.  And then you're like, oh no she didn't.  Then you're like, how is that even relevant?  I don't know, though in retrospect it does speak to some weird imperialist sentiment the film (or Michael Patrick King?) seems guilty of.

Anyhow: Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker, do I even need to tell you that?) is no longer an in-debt freelancer and is living the sweet life as bestselling author a million times over, married to the purring, boring old Mr. Big (Chris Noth) in an apartment that looks like an unlived-in photograph from a design magazine.  Now, she's getting bored.  She doesn't want to be the married couple that hangs out in front of the TV and Mr. Big is all over sitting around, ordering-in, and watching It Happened One Night in bed.  Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has two little girls who do nothing but scream and a nanny who doesn't believe in wearing a bra.  Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) has a son who's now in second grade, is totally over the married relationship drama, and quits her job because her boss is the uber-misogynist (don't worry, she calls the headhunter asap...no stay at home mom time for her).  Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is up to her old tricks.  In case you were seriously wondering how her libido would survive menopause, spoiler alert: she takes like 44 vitamins, rubs yams all over herself, and makes secretaries uncomfortable.  Somehow Samantha's fancy PR gig gets her hooked up with a free trip for 4 to Abu-Dhabi.  So, you know, they totally go.  It's opulent and there are personal Maybachs and $22,000 a night suites.  They're very lovely.

See, let's pretend you know nothing about this show.  Nothing.  You might look at the synopsis for the movie and construct some outside opinions: 1. This is a buddy road movie, 40+ women taking the act on a shenanigan-filled vacation   2. This is an escapist fantasy, Hollywood always ups the extravagance ante in recessive times  3. This is your typical "trapped in adulthood" bromance, only with women.  It's all of these things.  It's also totally ridiculous.  Liza Minnelli appears to perform "Single Ladies" at a gay wedding (hilarious).  There are man servants.  The women wear heels when they go for a ride on some camels.  There are several close-ups on bulging pants.  There are offensive cultural misunderstandings.  Samantha yells out the phrase "Lawrence of my labia."  Charlotte wears vintage Valentino to make cupcakes.  All of this happens.  Yes, it's absurd.  A lot of it falls flat and relies on poorly constructed dialogue and not-so-hot jokes.  It's self-indulgent, self-referential, and built on the ashes of the same old same old.  But, again, though the plot is weak and there's quite a bit that's stale and flat, it's definitely better than the first film.  It keeps moving.  It never stops and feels sorry for itself.   

Sex and the City 2 is not a good movie.  It is, however, a solid enough guilty pleasure.  It has everything you need from a good bad film: inappropriateness, musical numbers, over the top costumes, high camp levels, bad dialogue, sex talk, and enough of those little moments that offer up a glance at how it could have been better.  For all it's razzle dazzle distractions, when it comes to nabbing the female box office quotient, it arguably makes a better go of it than something like, for example, The Ugly Truth.  See, The Ugly Truth, and films like it, offer up the career woman archetype as cold hard bitch, and their stories revolve around the softening of these independent women and remolding by men.  That's one thing Sex and the City does not do.  3 out of 4 of its independent, self-made, working women did not retreat into domesticated bliss.  They did not soften, and though this film may have them a bit bubble-headed and pun-nabbing, I wouldn't say they're weak characters.  Oh god.  I never thought I would find myself doing this, but I think I'm actually about to defend Sex and the City 2 against claims that it's toxic if swallowed.


Sex and the City 2 has been panned.  I have to ask the ridiculous question: are our expectations different because this is a film about women?  Yeah.  That was a Carrie Bradshaw question and I feel some sort of strange Giger-drawn parasite making its way up my trachea, but I think I mean it.  Really. Are our expectations for this film actually different because, unlike the abundance of dumb concept-driven male bromance comedies, this one is about women.  Let's consider this briefly (and I'll try not to expand this into a much larger essay). Sex and the City 2 is not a romantic comedy.  The trials of Carrie & Big's relationship are not at the forefront here.  The absurdity of the Middle Eastern trip is.  The relationship is what drives the action of the plot.  X is happening, so Y happens, so blah blah blerg.  Look at this as an inverse of everything spun off from the Apatow collective. 

Think of The Hangover.  The wedding is happening, so the trip happens, so everything goes downhill.  Granted, The Hangover was much funnier than Sex and the City 2, but male-centric films of its kind are not always so.  In fact, in many of those films, there's an emphasis on being patently offensive and declaring one's manhood.  So, we have countless films where the men are allowed to tell off domineering wives and admit they don't want to do housework while at the same time throwing out homophobic gags or things that call an abundance of attention to any sort of racial/cultural/gender/sexual stereotype, but much of the fault is chalked up to "men behaving badly" and "boys will be boys." 

Ok, so what about SATC2?  Look at the blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes.  What you'll find is an excess of talk about how crass and licentious it is.  Yes, there are some iffy scenes in an Abu-Dhabi bazaar in which Samantha throws around condoms and her bosom yelling about her womanly rights while offending a Muslim nation.  Yes, this is totally fodder for anti-American terrorist regimes.  Let me state for the record, too, that the Abu-Dhabi trip was a filmmaking tactical error. They should not have gone there. It was a bad move bound to take a harmless movie and throw it into the reaching hands of outrage. It's totally culturally insensitive.  Yet, it's likely a fairly accurate approximation of the ignorant American tourist.  Samantha's opinion reflects many a commentary heard from folks in a post-9/11 world. And, while not delicately handled, her action is in keeping with her character.  The woman is absurd, she offends everybody.  Besides, how many times have you seen the ignorant male comic relief throw around the fact that he has a penis and the right to use it in an inappropriate situation?  Exactly how much are we expecting from our trashy, comic fare that this (literally a dumb sex comedy with adult women instead of college boys) is labeled an insulting embarrassment?  If this movie starred men, it would be par for the course.  No one would blink an eye when Miranda and Charlotte gripe about needing a break from parenting and proceed to drink too much.  No one would question Carrie's "is it because I'm a bitch wife who nags you?" response to Big's "let's spend a couple days apart every week" idea.  I'm not even so sure it would be a huge deal to posit questions on the burka.  There's an absolutely cringe-worthy scene of sisterdom in the Middle East in SATC2, and a strange, uncomfortable display of hotel subservience, but we all know that the male version would involve women stripping off the abaya and lounging about in next to nothing.  As it stands, the film's unapologetic, meandering, political incorrectness is still a far cry from the offense wrought by the Heigl brand of "do this and men will like you." 

Sex and the City has always walked a thin line when it comes to feminism, and the films falter more than they should.  Yet, they're not all bad. Feminism is always tricky.  There's a lot of theory and modes of thought on what it means to own oneself.  SATC2 takes the ownership and confuses it with capitalism. These women are consumers. They have the credit, the all-mighty dollar, and the power to use and abuse for good and bad.  They're not female chauvanists, nymphomaniacs, or bitches.  They're just overly privileged women taught to do primarily for themselves and who flaunt the fruits of their fictional labors as they deem fit.  I can't really begrudge them that.  I can feel like it's not me, I can decide not to be that woman, but I can't accuse them of doing a disservice to anyone who's ever walked the Earth with a vagina.  This is nothing but a fun, escapist, romp.  It's flawed, sure.  It might cross some taste boundaries, yes.  But it opens up a lot more conversational avenues than something like a sappy Nicholas Sparks-penned drama ever could.   Charlotte is cloying and obnoxious and makes idiotic faces, but she has a right to want to get away from that kid.  That kid of hers is awful.  I mean it, really just awful.  But, I digress...

So, you see, dear Reader...I'm befuddled.  My brain has been walked over by Manolos and Louboutins and now I'm sitting here trying to justify the film's ability to throw down an insult with its qualities as a blatantly superficial frothy entertainment.  I guess really, at the end of the day, all I can say is that after the depths of the first film, the sequel is a pleasant surprise.  It doesn't reach the smart and snappy heights of the show, but this time, it's at least entertaining in its effort to be a brainless diversion.  Instead of a sequel, however, I think I would have preferred a reboot.  Do-over the last one.  Get a new screenwriter. Michael Patrick King needs to knock it off, dude is not good at writing a full-length feature and has certainly not learned how to edit.

2 comments:

  1. I saw it last night with the ladies from the Castle. I found the film not very funny and actually got bored in parts. The clothes were fun to look at but that's about it. No more SATC movies!

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  2. Hello,
    Nice blog i like it about hollywood party
    One of the more interesting things to collect, however, which would make anyone envious of the celebrity collectibles, are actual props from the films which these actors have appeared in. Owning the different props that one sees in the films can give anyone a sense of wonder when it comes to a memorabilia collection.

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