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Nussbaum: Now, In Defense of Sex and the City 2

After the first few pans, I decided not to see Sex and the City 2.

I'd adored the show, I'd liked the first movie okay, but I didn't want to spend two and a half hours at a flop that (according to critics I respected, including my smart colleague David Edelstein — and my wonderful fellow Sex and the City fan Emma Rosenblum) was unfunny, offensive, and a shonda to fans of the HBO series and to all women of decency and self-respect.

But after the fifteenth vicious review? I needed to see it. I mean, the reviews were SO bad, so vitriolic, some of them relishing so transparently the opportunity to (sometimes explicitly) say "shut up, you stupid cunts," a surprisingly high number containing freaky metaphors about rape and murder, that something weird was going on.

So I saw the movie. And I enjoyed it.

I mean, what the heck? Yes, the first 40 minutes dragged, and the "gay wedding" didn't work at all — Stanford would not marry Anthony. The money stuff is indeed deeply tone-deaf. Too much camp makes baby go blind. Oh, Liza.

There is indeed gross product placement, too, as in all summer popcorn movies. (Like the Modern Family Hawaii episode, it plugged the luxury hotel where it was set.) But in Sex and the City, bear in mind, the clothes are like the cocktails and cars in a Bond film: toys owned by larger-than-life fantasy figures. And you won't see reviews like this for Bond films.

Plus, once they got to Abu Dhabi, the movie was fun. At the very least, it was provocative — edgy and gonzo and strange in a way that I personally found both off-putting and exciting. So what's going on? Let's take the criticisms one by one. (Full SPOILERS.)

THE CHARACTERS ARE CARTOONS COMPARED TO THE SHOW
To me, this is rewriting history. From the early seasons, the HBO characters — stylized icons, but with emotional weight — were attacked as cartoons, though critics now behave as if the show were beloved, and as if reviews for that first movie weren't harsh, too.

(There's actually a fascinating meta-moment in Sex and the City 2 in which Carrie reads a New Yorker review of her new book, a moment that is clearly based on Anthony Lane's glib pan of the first movie. The scene even has a visual allusion to The New Yorker's cruel caricature of the cast, which it combines with the Time Out New York cover showing the characters with their mouths duct-taped shut. The desire for these women to shut up is a phenomenon that has clearly obsessed both the critics and the filmmakers, who linked it in their sequel, for better or worse, with the notion of a mouth-covering burka.)

Anyway, I actually liked the characters in SATC2 — as opposed to the first movie, in which Charlotte and Samantha were in fact cartoons.

Char has a minor plot in this movie, one both obnoxious and affecting, and it's by far the hardest part of the movie to defend, so let's get it out of the way. Yes, the complaints of a wealthy stay-at-home mom with full-time help are hard to sympathize with. But as muddled as Char's scenes are, she's not wrong about the exhaustion factor of a fussy second child. And when Charlotte screams at her toddler and locks herself in a pantry to escape the chaos, the woman next to me muttered "I've been there." That's what Sex and the City has always done: captured universal experiences in absurd fantasy packages.

As for Miranda, several reviews have sneered that Miranda quits her job and the movie sends the message that "mothers shouldn't work." That's flat-out inaccurate: She quits a crap job with a sexist boss and no flexibility — then says directly that she needs her work to fulfill her, that being a mother isn't enough. In the end, because this is a pleasurable fantasy, she gets a perfect new job, at a diverse firm where she is treated well.

We'll get to Sam in a second.

CARRIE IS AN ANNOYING WHINY BITCH WHO SHOULD JUST SHUT UP
Make no mistake: Carrie — played by Sarah Jessica Parker — is neurotically unpleasant in early scenes, but that's kind of the point. She's having trouble adjusting to marriage. She hates that Big wants takeout and TV; she wants to eat out, dress up, and party.

But I couldn't help but wonder: How many movies have we seen where a married guy bridles at the dull stability of his life? You know, the plot of City Slickers? Old School? Paul Rudd in Knocked Up? That wimp in School of Rock? Hot Tub Time Machine? Ben Stiller in Flirting With Disaster? How many hundreds of self-centered male comic anti-heroes are out there — Seinfeld, Greenberg, Larry David, Zach Braff, that Swingers dude — and how many flawed, neurotic, anxious, whiny male commitment-phobes struggle to reconcile hedonistic freedom with the compromises of adulthood? Thousands. It's a summer-movie cliche.

That's Carrie. And to spoil the movie entirely in the name of clarity: She spends the first half-hour being a bitch about Big's stay-at-home tendencies. He suggests they take two days off a week, to bring back the spark of their courtship. Confused and hurt, she goes on a vacation, where she runs into her ex. When she reads that vicious New Yorker review, she goes into a tailspin of insecurity — and after dinner with Aidan, they kiss.

All three friends advise her not to tell Big. She does anyway, believing that it would be worse to keep a secret. Big hangs up. And she has a realization: She's been nostalgic for her younger, wilder self, but that self was a mess, running all over Manhattan, trying to get the love of someone who didn't love her. She needs to find a way to forge an unusual marriage that works for her: between two older idiosyncratic adults without children.

She goes home and Big isn't there. But when he returns, he's bought a ring: He's forgiven her, in part because he himself has messed up so seriously in the past (ditching her at the altar, for one). They've found a way to get past their marriage's growing pains.

Look, the character is no saint, she whines, and she dresses funny (and because she's a famous rich woman who has spent two years decorating an Upper East Side apartment, it's harder to sympathize with her than with some stoner pornhound in L.A.), but by the end of the movie, I thought what they were suggesting about forging your own rules of marriage was reasonably interesting, even touching. So sue me.

SAMANTHA IS A ONE-NOTE SLUT WHO SHOULD SHUT HER STUPID MOUTH
Samantha is a fantastic character. She was mis-served by the first movie, in which her plot was dumb: stuck in monogamy, Sam eats too much.

However, in this movie, she is freakin' fantastic. See those movies above, the ones with the neurotic male heroes, like Old School and Swingers and The Hangover? All those movies have another character, played by Jack Black or maybe Vince Vaughn or possibly Zach Galifianakis.

That guy is the id. He talks dirty, he cups his balls and makes blow-job jokes; he hits on women, he gives shitty romantic advice, he makes borderline racist remarks, he's a narcissist, but we love him! He's got the life force! He never grows up! Samantha is that guy.

And it is not in fact disgusting but frankly flat-out brilliant that she spends the whole movie ingesting yams and obsessing about menopause.

Okay, maybe it's disgusting, too (there's a scene where she puts hormone cream on her vagina in full view of all of midtown Manhattan), but I was truly dumbstruck by the brass ovaries of the movie, which make Borat look like an amateur: They actually dared to turn Samantha's hot flashes and mood swings (real experiences that 52-year-old women have, after all) into the equivalent of an acid trip. They made a horny 50-year-old woman into Jack Black.

Also, while Samantha's promiscuity is over-the-top, it is SUPPOSED TO BE over-the-top: She's not a real person, she's a super-heroine of lust. As Manohla Dargis notes in passing in her otherwise negative overview of the movie's press reception, The Hangover had a similar tone, with the most sexist subplot ever (henpecked guy trades bitch for stripper) and racial stereotypes, but no one complained, because the movie was fun. Women deserve a sick-funny summer comedy, too, and that's what Sex and the City 2 is aiming for, and those are the terms on which it should be judged.

THE MOVIE IS OFFENSIVE TO ARABIC CULTURES

Okay, complicated issue.

But one important thing to point out is that the worst, most crowingly self-satisfied and gonzo-misogynist reviews have seriously misrepresented the movie to make their case. Because there is in fact one main person in the movie who flouts every tradition in the Islamic city they visit: Samantha.

Of course, Samantha is offensive everywhere she goes. And throughout the movie, Miranda and Carrie continually try to get her to cover up, to stop talking loudly about group sex, and so on. That's the show's comic engine: Samantha says everything she thinks.

Now, was it a great idea to set a playful dirty women's comedy in Abu Dhabi? It was not. You can't easily make a light Hope/Crosby sand-dune adventure movie in the middle of a depressing, intractable war in the region — and the characters come off as cosmically clueless as they blather on about Arabian nights, especially since they're meant to be cosmopolitan New Yorkers. The critics who say the movie plays with fusty Orientalist stereotypes are absolutely correct.

But what is all this nonsense about how respectful they should be about the culture around them? It's a dirty sex comedy! Set in a place where women have few legal rights. And the fact that Samantha freaks out at the hypocrisy of a rich Islamic wonderland where women have no rights — where they are jailed for public kissing and yet nightclubs are full of half-naked belly dancers (which, as this discussion points out, are likely women who have been trafficked) for the pleasure of tourists and rich local men — is not only not offensive, it makes perfect sense. Of course Carrie would be unsettled by seeing a woman lift her face-covering veil to eat French fries: You (if you were an American woman who had never seen this) would be, too.

Also, that scene every review keeps talking about? Where Samantha freaks out in an Arab marketplace? Nearly every critic describes this as though she's randomly throwing condoms out of sheer obnoxiousness. In fact, it's a motivated flip-out: She's been arrested for kissing and nearly jailed. She's pissed — and having mood swings because her hormones were confiscated. She's wearing short-shorts because she is sweating like crazy, having hot flashes, and is so angry she refuses to dress modestly as they race to the airport in 100 degree weather.

In the market, someone grabs her pocketbook and condoms fall out and the group is surrounded by disapproving men in turbans. She blows up: It's like Jack Black meets Eve Ensler. She screams with frustration that she's a woman and, yeah, she likes sex.

Can you combine dirty gonzo humor with what is obviously intended to be an absurdist moment of raging feminist slapstick? Maybe, maybe not. I laughed, I was impressed, I was appalled — it was interesting and screwy, and in its best moments, that's what the movie is. It was very Harold & Kumar 2, another fun, offensive, hit-or-miss movie that freely mixed politics with gross-out stereotypes, but got nowhere near this much flack.

Finally, the ladies escape when some local women sneak them into a private room and remove their abayas, revealing high-fashion clothing. Many critics have gone bananas over how foul this moment is. But of course, it's accurate: Rich Arab women DO wear clothes like this. It's one of the contradictions of this Middle Eastern playland, which, like the cheesy karaoke bar where the characters have a campy sing-along of "I Am Woman," is part of the surreal setting they've chosen to work with.

The moment felt uncomfortable, no doubt: Playing a repressive Islamic legal climate for light-summer laughs is too hard a high-wire act to pull off. But if it didn't hit, it didn't miss by as much as the critics have suggested, either, because the criticism is attacking the movie on false grounds.

Also, "Lawrence of My Labia" is in fact funny.

THIS IS THE WORST MOVIE EVER

No, this is not the worst movie ever. Little Black Book is.

We're living in an age of defiant gross-out summer comedies — some of them great (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), most of them stupid (I'm not a big fan of Borat, myself, or crappy Vegas bad-behavior films like Really Bad Things). But people have to place the movie where it belongs: in THAT continuum, not next to some wonderful indie movie about female friendships like Please Give. That's how pathetic women's options are at the movies: that these two movies are getting compared just because they both star people with vaginas.

I didn't love Sex and the City 2, but I laughed while watching it, I cringed while watching it, and I'm not sorry I saw it, because I confirmed my suspicion: that when you read the reviews calling people "sexaholic sluts," it's worth judging for yourself. This particular Birkin may be a mixed bag, but sometimes the reception is enough to make you want to give a movie money just for spite.

[Update: Just wanted to add a link to this great Guardian writeup analyzing the striking misogyny of many of the SATC2 reviews.]

Photo: New Line Cinema/HBO