(by Dustin Putman
A big-screen continuation of the groundbreaking 1998-2004 HBO series of the same name, 2008's "Sex and the City" was an enormous financial success that nonetheless couldn't live up to the show's quality. Bland when it should have been sizzling, creatively bankrupt when it ought to have been incisive, the film felt like pointless filler with little of the sharp dialogue and insight into sex and relationships that made the series such a cultural phenomenon. Instead, director Michael Patrick King wallowed in music montages (most of them revolving around trying on clothes and parading around in Manolo Blahniks) and sent the four fashionable, Cosmo-sipping New York gals down unmemorable paths that more or less left them in the same places they were at when the picture started. Running a marathon-length 150 minutes when 90 would have sufficed, the movie felt like an entire seven-episode season of the show strung together—and not a good season, either. Article continues below
It is with great pleasure, then, to announce that "Sex and the City 2" surprisingly rights most of the wrongs of its predecessor, reclaiming all of the intelligence, wisdom, humanity and humor audiences received each week when the series was still airing. Gone is the overpronounced, faux-cutesy music score that spelled out every onscreen action and emotion. Gone are the shrill, shallow caricatures the beloved characters were threatened to be turned into. Gone are the sappy, forced melodramatics, replaced here by more honest and identifiable interpersonal conflicts. At 146 minutes, the running time might still be unwieldy, but "Sex and the City 2" serves as a necessary rite of passage for four women who, now into their forties and fifties while still looking fabulous, have finally grown up without losing their sense of fun. If the first "Sex and the City" movie drowned in its own mistaken self-importance and lack of focus, "Sex and the City 2" lessens the pressure on itself and proves to be far more natural, content as a valiant, identifiable slice-of-life.
Set two years after the events of the previous film, freelance writer and published relationships author Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) has settled down into her married life with Big (Chris Noth). Though content, their day-to-day routine and frequent squabbles over how they spend their time cause them to question whether their marriage might be strengthened by spending a couple days out of each week apart. Carrie is naturally worried that this is a sign of trouble to come, but is reminded that she and Big have always vowed to make their own rules in lieu of needing to follow set conventions. Meanwhile, attorney Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) becomes fed up with the disrespectful treatment by her boss and quits on a whim, thus finding herself suddenly unemployed and in search of a new practice to work for. For stay-at-home mother Charlotte (Kristin Davis), parenting two mischievous young children has left her secretly at the end of her ropes while also paranoid over the hiring of a hot, braless—yet perfectly capable—new nanny (Alice Eve). As for oversexed, newly menopausal PR rep Samantha (Kim Cattrall), she is presented with a one-week, all-expenses-paid trip to Abu Dhabi, and she has no intention of going without her three best girls in tow.
Surely learning from the mistakes he made last time around, writer-director Michael Patrick King has dialed down the pandering tone and gone back to the recipe that made the television series so winning. He has recaptured the spirit of his four lead characters, who were turning into shadows and exaggerations of their former selves, and he also has opted to go a more intimate route in his storytelling. There are no huge, life-altering plot points, and yet the characters' struggles are those that all adults can relate to in one way or another. Carrie and Big have their disagreements, negotiating their time together and apart while aiming to keep their spark alive, but they are always honest with one another and willing to talk things out. Miranda, hoping for a happy medium between her career goals and her family, makes a number of smart decisions based on her needs and desires. Charlotte, so poorly handled in the 2008 film, is treated less as a screechy child and more like a real person here, her frustrations as a mother ringing with truth and earnestness. When Miranda and Charlotte finally get together over drinks and spill out their life's grievances about motherhood, the raw discussion they share is dynamite, as empathetic as it is eye-opening.
Lengthy though it is, "Sex and the City 2" rarely flags as a piece of grand entertainment, getting off to an adorable start wherein Carrie briefly flashes back to her first fateful encounters with Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha in 1986. Acerbic and salacious when the story—or Samantha—calls for it, the film additionally acts as a gorgeous travelogue, the viewer tagging right along with the gals on vacation in Abu Dhabi. A genuine tale of female empowerment that bypasses sappiness and overbearing manipulation, the picture does a respectable, provocative, and even brave job of taking heed of the religious customs of the Middle East even as the women voice their own valid and critical opinions of the country's treatment of females and narrow views on public affection and anything even remotely connected to sex. Things get a little over-the-top by the time they meet some native women hiding extravagant modern fashions and liberal viewpoints underneath their burqas, but it works within the airy confines of its comic sensibilities.
It is not giving anything away that the advertising doesn't already to say that Carrie runs into ex-boyfriend Aidan (John Corbett) in a chance Abu Dhabi encounter, and there is a bit of tension for a time in wondering if the old feelings still exist between these two now-married people. How this transpires—and the decisions that Carrie makes in protecting the trust she shares with Big—is appreciably low-key yet effective and doesn't take up more screen time than is necessary to make its point. Also a minor but memorable story point: Carrie receives a negative review of her latest book—a humor-based memoir of her first year at marriage—in The New Yorker, shedding light on her vulnerable side and causing her to question how much she truly knows about betrothed relationships.
Sarah Jessica Parker (2009's "Did You Hear About the Morgans?") was born to play Carrie Bradshaw, the role fitting her like a glove. Dressed up in a revolving door of costumes, each more extravagant than the last, Carrie nonetheless seems a fair deal more likable in comparison to the last movie, her admitted materialistic side evened out by her giving nature and ability to sympathize and care about others. Kim Cattrall (2010's "The Ghost Writer") doesn't disappoint as the fiery, sexually voracious Samantha, delivering her delicious dialogue of puns and double entendres with expected gusto. As Miranda, Cynthia Nixon (2005's "Little Manhattan") is her reliable self, albeit with a noticeable light in her eyes that signals how much she's enjoying herself. And, as Charlotte, Kristin Davis (2009's "Couples Retreat") hasn't given a performance of this much depth and commitment since the show's early days on HBO; she truly comes into her own as an actress, proving to be more capable than casting directors tend to give her credit for. Chris Noth (2005's "The Perfect Man") is given a fairly meaty part, too, with Big's relationship with Carrie ebbing and flowing but continually loving. In cameos, Miley Cyrus (2010's "The Last Song") and Penelope Cruz (2009's "Nine") are both cute, popping in and out quickly while still making an impression.
Emotionally compelling and mostly lighthearted, "Sex and the City 2" features all of the clothes and cocktails one has come to expect, but this time those elements are window-dressing to a heartfelt tale that envisions Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha with a newfound maturity as they navigate through the natural processes of life. Mistakes are sometimes made—none of them are perfect—and their ability to admit this very fact signals substantive growth for them as people. Toss in a zinger-filled but reverent gay wedding, an exotic ride on camels, two infectiously bouncy musical numbers (Liza Minnelli impressively covers Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," while the quartet of leading ladies sing karaoke to Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" in a Middle Eastern nightclub), and a lovely conclusion scored to Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," and you have a glorious return to form for a franchise that was basically left for dead two years ago. Is "Sex and the City 2" completely necessary? Not really, but it does aspire to say something fresh and relatable about finding happiness and a place to belong as the next phase of one's life begins. Most important, spending time with Carrie & Co. is once again a blast. The real them had been missed.