Monday, December 13, 2010

Not Quite as Fabulous

You might remember me once or twice mentioning how my friend The Opinioness is the one who introduced me to a little show on HBO called Sex and the City. Granted, her main reason for doing so was because she wanted me to go see the midnight premiere of the first Sex and the City film with her, but because I had heard good things about the show (from The Opinioness, of course, but from other sources as well) and since I'm a relatively open-minded guy anyway, I took that challenge and watched six seasons of the ground-breaking show in about five weeks, barely finishing in time. My consensus? Despite some frivolous bits about ludicrously-expensive fashion, and some genuinely over the top scenarios, I enjoyed the vast majority of the show's episodes due to its emphases on friendship and human individuality. Despite Carrie Bradshaw and her friends' exquisite tastes, the characters still managed to be realistic people, with hopes and fears and people they could rely on. Even possessing a Y chromosome, I could appreciate the basic ideas the show conveyed, even if I'll never obtain a full understanding of womens' obsession with shoes. But the show wasn't designed for the straight male audience, as it was no surprise when the first film was released to huge audiences of mostly-female fans, many of whom identified themselves with one or more of the characters they had been introduced to back in 1998.

"Oh, no please don't let her talk to me..."
For me, there had been no rush to see the newest film in the SatC franchise, which was released this past May. Poor reviews deterred me, and frankly I thought the original run of the show and the first movie had done a good enough job of ending the series where it needed to be. Trailers for Sex and the City 2 featuring the ladies in the Middle East seemed like too out-there a scenario, though it promised to be a back-to-roots movement from the first film, which had more gut churning moments than many SEASONS of the show. Instead, the film's opener is entirely light-hearted, as the ladies and their respective families attend the Connecticut wedding of two SatC regulars, Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson) and Anthony Maratino (Mario Cantone). That's right folks, it's a gay wedding, complete with swans and officiated by Liza Minnelli. In the meantime, we get an idea of the issues the four women will be going through this episode film. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) has a new boss at her law firm who hates her, and and she never gets to be at the big moments for her son. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is worried about aging and menopause and takes tons of pills, creams and hormones to trick her body into thinking it's younger. Charlotte's (Kristin Davis) children are getting too much for her to handle. On top of that (and thanks to a comment by Samantha), she's now worried about the effect her no-bra wearing nanny will have on her marriage. And Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is struggling with concept of her and Big (Chris Noth) becoming a complacent married couple, two years after their marriage.

Fashion is subjective as always, but still
For the first half of the film, it plays out much like an episode of the series, which is more than welcome. Splitting time equally between the four main characters, the film captures what was so great about the original series, bantering between sweet friendship and crass sexual display. These are more mature women than premiered twelve years ago, so the sex has been tampered down (with the exception of Samantha, who is as dirty as ever), but the other storytelling aspects from the show are on display and in top form. Witty dialogue, realistic relationships and plain honest heart abound, and if the rest of the film had felt even a shadow of what was put in the first half, I would have had very little to complain about. However, it is exactly for the film's second half that the story isn't nearly as good as it could be. Transported to Abu Dhabi thanks to a Samantha business trip, the four women must deal with their problems waiting for them back in New York City from far, far away. It is in this beautiful land that the main issues in the film arise, most notably the region's cultural suppression of women. Despite being labeled the "New Middle East", there are still extremely conservative viewpoints towards womens' rights that the film occasionally touches on, especially how it affects Samantha's open sexuality. The others are more respectful of the local customs, though each has their own situations to overcome that will test them and their relationships back home.

Yes, a picnic in the dessert, which is nothing like Central Park
The main reason people watch this film is for the characters, and the fab four are as great as they ever were. After so many years, the characters have matured but stayed true to themselves through relationships, families and more. Parker is as playful as ever as the film's lead, Carrie Bradshaw. Always seeking the next diversion, Carrie works to the bone on her relationship with her husband, so that they will always have the "sparkle". Cattrell is thankfully foul-mouthed as ever as the openly-sexual public relations agent Samantha Jones. Still as arrogant and uncompromising as ever, Samantha will nevertheless do anything for her friends. Her arrogance does however get her in more trouble than she is used to, and she also isn't as sympathetic since she's condemning local traditions while engaging in that attitude. Kristin Davis' Charlotte is more or less the same as she is every time we see her, with her neurotic personality often times overpowering her ability to think logically. For that she is paired effectively with Cynthia Nixon's Miranda, who shows a new, fun side in this film and does a great job taking charge and leading the characters to a good time on their trip. The four, even after so much time, work amazingly together, and their interaction with one another make the film as good as it is.

There's a hump joke in here somewhere
But one thing I was disappointed by was the lack of the original series' supporting characters. Though the men of Sex and the City make their relegated appearances, they are quickly cast to the wind come the film's second half. Evan Handler, who plays Charlotte's husband Harry, is one of my favorite characters from the show but has precious little to do here. The same can be said for Jason Lewis as Smith Jerrod, Samantha's Hollywood actor ex, who appears in all of two scenes. Miranda's husband Steve, played by David Eigenberg, has a few nice lines early in the film and then disappears. Garson and Cantone's gay couple disappear after the opening sequence, despite being among the show's more popular characters. At least a proper explanation is given as to why they ended up marrying one another after not liking the other one iota during the series' run. The charming Chris Noth is given the most to do as Carrie's husband Big (yes, his name is John, but he'll always be Big to me), though most of it is still in the film's first half. At least he's given some second half time, though not enough to get anything real before the film's end. The film is helped by a couple of new characters, however. Alice Eve plays Charlotte's Irish nanny quite well in the few scenes she's plugged into, and the bridge between her obvious brains and charm and her also obvious physical attributes make it much easier to imagine Charlotte's internal conflict. And English actor Raza Jaffrey is simply lovely as a butler working at the ladies' Abu Dhabi hotel. Carrie's Ex Aiden (John Corbett) also makes an appearance, but I didn't like this new Aiden storyline, as it was one that should have been put to bed years ago.

Samantha thankfully refuses to be anyone but herself
I don't want to give the impression that I hated the film's second half. It's just that the first half was so good, and the rest felt like a major letdown. There is one scene between Charlotte and Miranda equating motherhood to a full time job which is an amazing scene, probably my favorite from the film, while also saluting mothers around the world. And any scene with Jaffrey was great to watch. Sadly, these were small parts of a much larger story that was disappointing at times and racially charged in others. One scene featuring Samantha going ballistic in a bazaar is not a little culturally insensitive, and while it's supposed to be propping women up as strong, it really only inflames the American/Muslim divide. For the most part, the film's second half really is about allowing the ladies to embrace extravagances the same way they would have in New York, all while in a new glamorous place. While that's not as deep as it gets, it's obvious writer/director Michael Patrick King didn't think the same old crises would work in a traditional setting, but this might have been too big a leap for him. King might have been the best creative mind the original series had, but here he seems to lose his focus and the film just doesn't feel the same without its recognizable supporting cast.

The sets are gorgeous, and like Skittles, all the colors of the rainbow
If I had been judging this film based on the second half alone, it would be an easy pick for one of the year's worst films. Despite a few good scenes, the film wouldn't be watchable without the strong first half to balance it out. And the bloated run time of 146 minutes just stretched those bad parts out far too long to be palatable. I had no problem with the characters, only how some were used. It's racial themes were obviously over King's head, as he only focused on how the local Abu Dhabi culture affected the ladies' stay. Even a nice show of female solidarity between the four heroines and a local women's book club can't save the film from itself. Trying something different should be commended, but when you do the same thing in a new place you're just screaming that you have nothing left. There's no doubt that future SatC films would be extremely lucrative, but it's obvious the creative minds aren't crossing the Atlantic; they're merely treading water. Twelve years later, we've seen probably everything we could see when it comes to the Sex and the City franchise, and it's time to put the story out to pasture. Like getting blood from a stone, we'd only be looking forward to disappointment otherwise.

Thankfully, Sex and the City: The Musical hasn't panned out