sex and the pity

Debate: What Went Wrong with Sex and the City 2?

The reviews are in, the people have spoken, and everyone pretty much agrees that Sex and the City 2 is a mildly-to-completely terrible movie. What’s interesting is the unaniminousness of it all: Everyone seems disappointed, from straight-male film reviewers to diehard SATC fans inclined to forgive all. So we had one of each — New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein and associate editor Emma Rosenblum (who first bonded with the series in college) — work together to try to pinpoint just what went so painfully awry.

EMMA ROSENBLUM For background: When Sex and the City the TV series debuted, I loved it in the kind of cliched I can’t wait until I get to live in New York and drink cocktails and date men! way that’s now embarrassing to admit. The show shaped my ideas about what it meant to be an adult. And it seemed fun! And fabulous! And I didn’t hate the first movie, though I didn’t love it like I did the show. It was too long, and too label-obsessed (which didn’t feel true to Carrie), and the writing wasn’t as sharp as it had been. But I cared about Carrie and Big and Steve and Miranda and that got me through the movie intact.

Which brings us to this iteration. There were a couple of parts I liked: The scene with Miranda and Charlotte talking about how hard it is to be a mom felt like a comforting throwback to the original show (though with Miranda in much, much nicer clothes), and I actually thought the gay wedding was funny — though the idea that Anthony and Stanford fell in love after hating each other throughout the series was ludicrous and felt cheap. And there begins my list of complaints; like, Abu Dhabi — why, oh, why? (I can’t even bear to discuss the burka hijinks.) But my biggest issue was that the emotional stakes just weren’t there. You knew Harry wasn’t going to cheat on Charlotte, you knew Big would forgive Carrie, Miranda quit her job in the first few minutes of the movie, Samantha’s just Samantha. Michael Patrick King had said that this movie was going to be all fun, but it was the darkness of the first movie that connected it to the original series. When we’d all watch together in college, we’d laugh and cry. So for the 2.5 hours of this movie in which I hardly laughed and didn’t at all cry, I wondered, what’s the point?

DAVID EDELSTEIN I agree with every word. And I shared your regard for (if not your identification with) what was strong and moving in the series. I think the problem is that when you decide you’re going to do something OUT-RRRRAGEEEOUS (big fat gay wedding! Liza! flaunt the flesh in front of Muslims!) and FAAAAB-U-LOOUUUS (every scene a new couture Halloween costume) and SCREEEAMINGLY FUNNY (Bedouin Bath and Beyond!) then what you end up with is a Provincetown-style camp drag show devoid of emotional content. Scene by scene, there is nothing at stake, and even when there’s something potentially interesting — Mr. Big a wannabe homebody? who knew? — the writing is so coarse and on-the-nose and subtext-free that the scenes feel like place-holders, waiting to be filled in when a real writer has a crack at the script. One thing I probably didn’t hit hard enough in my review (because critics often review intentions) is that the lines are wincers and the direction is whackingly bad: You can see every dumb joke dragging itself toward you, panting, across the desert. While many knew that Sex and the City was as much about a gay-camp sensibility as a feminist one, SATC 2 is what will drive it home to the general audience. Charlotte, the conventionally pretty breeder, is now of zero interest. Miranda’s real story is Cynthia Nixon’s coming out, so what can you do with her? Samantha is getting old so you stuff her like a sausage into outfits for women 25 years younger, give her hot flashes, and hope that the effect will be poignant instead of what it is, grotesque. And then there’s Carrie, who has become an oddly passive but overdressed cipher.

ROSENBLUM It’s true, they let camp overtake the movie to the point that it felt farcical at almost every turn. The problem with Samantha in this sequel is a bit more complicated than just stuffing her in too tight dresses. She was always the most cartoonish character, though in the final few seasons of the show, with the cancer plotline and her relationship with Smith Jared, she was admirably fleshed out (no pun intended!). Which is why it was a disappointment in the two movies to see the writers revert her back to the gay-man Samantha of old, licking her lips and feeling up younger guys. When do women cross over from actual viable sexpots to Betty White territory, when the audacity of acting sexual becomes the joke? King and his writers have had difficulty walking that line as Kim Cattrall ages. Before she was adventurous, teaching the girls (and the world!) about masturbation and threesomes, and now she’s just a sad-sack, exaggerated joke. I do take issue with your word choice of “grotesque”: I know you’re not calling Cattrall grotesque, but it kicks in my knee-jerk female defenses.

EDELSTEIN Feel free to take issue with “grotesque,” but even that is a euphemism for what I feel when I see Cattrall’s Samantha. And here’s where I need to mount another defense of what I wrote in my “controversial” original review: Every single person I talk to about this film — colleagues and civilians — have said to me something along the lines of: They look so old. Sometimes they used less flattering words than old. But in print, those same colleagues said nothing along those lines, even though how these women look is 90 percent of what we’re supposed to register from scene to scene. But the last thing I want to do is demean these women. The real problem is that they’re abominably photographed.

And now I suspect (correction: I know) we are in a very difficult area and if I had any sense I’d stop writing because there’s no way not to come off like an insensitive prick, a sexist, and even a homophobe. But there is a connection between the ways in which Michael Patrick King uses Samantha here and the way John Waters used Divine. No, Cattrall is not a 400-pound transvestite male. The point in both cases, though, is to use an actor’s flesh for shock value. King underscores the point by having someone say a dress is meant for someone 20 years younger and then turns Samantha’s hot flashes into a running gag, even holding on her scantily-clad form as she rolls around in the dirt. Is he openly challenging our standards of beauty? Sure, and many will make the case that by recoiling I prove how narrow, sexist, look-ist, and age-ist my own standards are. They might say, “Hey, you’re not so young and svelte yourself” or “You should be so lucky if someone who looks like Kim Cattrall would want to fuck you, but she wouldn’t anyway because she’s way too much woman for you.” And to all that I say, “Yes — and no.” I don’t see “fabulousness” when I look at Samantha in those get-ups as she thrusts out her tongue at men and drops broad come-ons. I see a specific and very narrow slice of gay culture so invested in epater-le-hetero-bourgousie that it almost completely violates everything that brought you to Sex and the City in the first place. Cattrall’s writhing on the ground and moaning, “Yes, I have sex, and I LIKE it” is a stunning provocation, both aggressively in-your-face and self-pitying. And it’s the most real moment in the whole movie. To sum up: For the kind of gay aesthetic that Michael Patrick King embraces, to be “fabulous” there must be an element of the grotesque. And so the women in SATC2 have lost any connection with what you (and I) first responded to and have become different kinds of icons.

ROSENBLUM The writers have clearly found it impossible to translate the series into one about women in their 40’s and 50’s in New York (hence: Abu Dhabi). But they gave up way too fast. Carrie’s restlessness in her marriage; Charlotte’s difficulties with motherhood; Miranda’s work/life balance — I’d happily watch 2.5 hours of the SATC women deal with these relatable issues, as would most any fan. Sure, it might not be as fun as watching them date the various freaks of New York, or club hop their way through the (now way-way over) Meatpacking district, but women look to the franchise as a reflection of their own lives (hence the “I’m a Carrie” phenomenon), so why not deliver on that instead of giving us an endless montage of real estate porn and Persian servants? There’s a moment when Carrie tearfully moans that she spent her entire twenties and thirties flailing, and now that she’s gotten the man she loves, she’s still messing it up. It was actually a rare few minutes that felt like it belonged in the movie I wished for — an acknowledgment of Carrie’s past as a (mostly depressing) time of growth, and a nod to the fact that she still hasn’t figured out her issues; a central theme of the show. If there had just been more dialogue like this, and fewer camel rides…

Debate: What Went Wrong with Sex and the City 2?