Making a second Sex and the City film was both a necessity and a bold move. The first film exhausted the series’ narrative in such a dramatic way that there had to be a better final note – and yet where could the franchise go with everything exhausted? Sex and the City 2 provides quite a compelling answer to that question, but builds up to it, spending its first act on the wedding of two relatively minor characters from the series – Stanford Blatch and Anthony Marentino. Despite the fact that these two men loathed each other for all six seasons, they were the only two gay men in the script, so they’re peremptorily paired together here, as the series tries to update its antiquated sexual morality to the era of widespread gay marriages.
This isn’t a good-faith gesture though, or even a serious attempt at engaging with the present. Rather, it’s an indication that the grand narrative of the series, as we knew it, is absolutely over, since the series never truly cared about its gay characters, except as accoutrements and accessories to Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. There’s something distasteful about seeing the second film desperately double down on gay fans now that all the straight subplots are resolved, especially since the depiction of this particular gay wedding is easily the most homophobic moment in the entire franchise, just as the first film was easily the most sexist.
So homophobic is the depiction of this opening wedding, in fact, that it made me wonder what kind of self-respecting gay man actually writes this stuff. Since the series validated marriage above all else, it was always going to be hit especially hard by the prospect of gay marriage, given that its gay men existed only as vehicles for straight marriage. Accordingly, all four of the women are really catty about Stanford and Anthony’s wedding, but weirdly possessive of the two men as well: “Her gay best friend is marrying my gay best friend.” They titter and complain about the extravagance of the ceremony, despite spending seasons planning their own nuptials – and this is especially hard to take from Charlotte, who talked about nothing but her Cinderella fantasies, and the sanctity of marriage, for hours at a time.
For all that this opening act superficially seems to buy into the fabulosity of gay weddings, then, it’s suffused with the seething rage of a certain kind of woman (usually white) who has always seen gay men as marital accessories, instruments for her own marriage bliss. It’s not unlike the rage Grace felt, on Will & Grace, at the prospect of Will getting married first, once gay marriage was legalised halfway through the series. In and of itself, the prospect of gay marriage indicates that the narrative of the series has been exhausted, since that narrative was always synonymous with an attitude to marriage that excludes gay people by definition.
No surprise, then, that this gay wedding, and the subsequent reception, precipitates a crisis for all four women that’s far more traumatic than the crisis of losing their loved ones – the crisis of having to remain with men who embody everything they once opposed. The fear here is not that Big will leave Carrie, or that Steve will leave Miranda, or even that Harry will leave Charlotte, but that all three women are destined to remain entrapped in a fantasy that seems to have soured right at the moment that gay marriage was legalised, and straight marriage lost its veneer of exclusivity. A indelible trauma thus settles over the reception, which crystallises when we return to New York, for the truncated second act, and find all four of the characters – even Samantha – have become (or always were) boring, basic and utterly normy.
There’s not even a trace of the edginess of the earlier seasons in this second act, which is even glossier than the first film, and even more of a fantasy, which makes it doubly traumatic that the fantasy is so banal. A franchise that once prided itself on sexual heterodoxy has now become an advertisement for white, wealthy, family values – perhaps it always was – as the story is exhausted, the relationships are exhausted and New York itself is exhausted. It’s a sign of desperation that the script resorts to Miranda’s working life for material, and yet even at this last stage it can’t muster up any real interest in anything outside her relationship with Steve, since no sooner do we cut to her law firm than she’s fired, forcing her back home again.
Most tellingly, however, Sex and the City 2 can’t imagine Carrie and Big as anything other than a bickering, basic, boring couple. What was meant to be one of the great romantic trajectories of the third golden age of television turns into a series of petty squabbles about feet on the couch, the right kinds of birthday gifts and, in a moment of reflexive desperation, the right way to watch television. None of this is delivered with a cosy comfort or lived-in intimacy either – just the joyless routine of a relationship borne out of status that has, once again, lost its propulsion in the era of gay marriage. Whereas Carrie’s apartment bolstered her charisma, her new apartment with Big looks more like a hotel room, so it makes sense that she retreats to her old apartment, which she still owns, during this second act – ostensibly to write, but really so Big can court her again, in yet another reheated iteration of their tedious to-and-fro.
Given the crisis of the first act, and the banality of the second act, Sex and the City 2 can’t possibly rely on narrative in the third act. Instead, it simply sets out to restore and amplify the collective swagger of the franchise – and in doing so, to save the franchise from the limpid turgidity that, by this point, has consumed three and a half hours of movie time (about three quarters of a regular season). We saw hints of this swagger in the rnb soundtrack of the first film – or at least the second act, when Jennifer Hudson made a cameo as Carrie’s emotional support secretary – but it’s front and centre now, from the opening credits, which unfold to “Empire State of Mind,” to Liza Minelli’s campy rendition of “Single Ladies” at Stanford and Anthony’s wedding. The second act then starts with flashbacks to Carrie’s first glimpses of Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, setting the scene for The Carrie Diaries, before segueing us into the present, and showing how each meeting resolved into the swagger of the present.
This escalation of swagger culminates, appropriately, with an invitation from Smith Jerrod – the only decent romantic partner left by the end of the series. In a perfect world, Samantha would return to Smith, and all the other relationships would be dissolved, but with the narrative totally calcified, the best that Smith can do is offer the four women the chance to totally abstract themselves from the story they’ve constructed together – an all-expenses paid vacation to Abu Dhabi, where he happens to be shooting his latest picture on location.
This extended third act was the most panned sequence in the entire Sex and the City franchise, but it’s easily the most inspired and dynamic part of the two films, and the seventh season that they effectively comprised. Sure, it’s problematic for kinds of reasons, but it’s still an ingenious way to redress everything that made the first film, and the first two acts of this film, so stagnant and stale. For one thing, shifting the action from New York to Abu Dhabi suddenly makes the women seem edgy again – they’re conservatives in the United States, but they’re progressives in the United Arab Emirates, as they make clear by singing “I Am Woman” to a crowd of incredulous Middle Eastern women at a karaoke night shortly after they arrive.
At the same time, the extravagance of the UAE makes their own conspicuous consumption seem chic and tasteful by comparison, while also providing them with a new horizon for upward mobility. Everything about wealth is bigger and brighter in Abu Dhabi, meaning that shopping, the favourite pastime of the series, takes place on a totally different scale as well. It doesn’t hurt, too, that homosexuality is outlawed in the Emirates, meaning that there’s no danger of the foursome’s status being disrupted by a gay wedding. Instead, they take real pleasure in winding back the clock thirty years, dropping knowing winks and camp asides to an Arabic footman whom they immediately pronounce as gay. Once again, homosexuality – literally – becomes a servant to their desires, as they enjoy bestowing a protective tolerance on this footman that Stanford and Anthony, now happily married, no longer need from them.
Yet the UAE operates above all to restore their collective strut and swagger, partly by gravitating the franchise towards a globe-trotting picaresque that aims to be cutting-edge, but actually feels quite quaint. It’s that quaintness that ultimately saves this third act, forming, as it does, a tacit concession that these four women will never be avant-garde again, and perhaps never were, in their own (slightly) updated version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. As their swagger is hyperbolised into car and camel convoys, and their Middle Eastern gear gathers a flowing airstream in its wake, the Abu Dhabi cityscape is gradually airbrushed away, leaving nothing but the desert to challenge their passage – and making every passage as fluid as the desert. There’s something quite bold about this vision of middle-aged femininity – no light is as harsh or unforgiving as desert light – especially as the result is a parodic cinema effect, an escalation of mise-en-scene to the point where it can only be reflexively ridiculous.
That ability to acknowledge absurdity while also swaggering within it makes Sex and the City 2 quite unique within the franchise – it’s the franchise’s own version of late work, which tends to be reflexive, parodic and inquisitive in precisely this way. Only musicals can typically sustain this earnest absurdity, and as a result Sex and the City 2 often feels like a musical, and has the scope and scale of a musical, albeit substituting increasingly extravagant set pieces for actual musical numbers. The climax is the most infamous – a scrambling attempt to escape Abu Dhabi that sees the women play around with the hijab as a comic device and fashion item. First, Samantha scatters condoms to a group of hijab-clad women, then the four women don hijabs themselves, and finally they take refuge with the same hijab-clad women, who all take off their garments to reveal that they’re sporting American designer brands beneath them.
This sequence was lambasted and lampooned for being culturally offensive, but in reality it just takes everything that’s inherently offensive about the franchise and provides it with a commensurate canvas. Watching it is like seeing the franchise acknowledge its own limitations, while also searching for an image that is genuinely proportionate to its own self-image, and to the power, aspiration and entitlement of the four women at its core. There’s something bracing and exhilarating about that, especially since it means that, for the only time in two movies, we’re actually taking the women on their own terms, flaws and all, rather than getting bogged down in the endless banalities of their love lives. If the Abu Dhabi sequence does anything, it prevents them reaching out to their husbands for status, and going straight to the capital and status their husbands represent – bypassing men for pure capital.
It’s pretty drab, then, when we finally return to yet another reheated reunion with Big, although this last scene is so cursory that it barely functions as an epilogue. The genius of Sex and the City 2 is to reduce the whole narrative of the franchise, and every man the women every court, to an affective capital that is matched and exceeded by the conspicuous consumption of the UAE. It’s intriguing, then, to think where the third film (planned but never made) might have gone, what other surrogates for this capital it might have found – and to predict where the reboot might take the weird honesty that’s glimpsed in Sex and the City 2, which belatedly reveals that series is, and always was, about capital basking in its own image.