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Two movies opening this week chronicle the dying gasps of a decadent empire: Alejandro Amenabar's Agora and Michael Patrick King's Sex and the City 2 (Warner Bros.). Of the pair, Agora, which concerns the destruction of the library at Alexandria, is the better movie (in this case, a very low bar to clear). But Sex and the City is, in its way, a more vivid portrait of historical decline. The last (oh please, God, let it be the last) installment of the franchise takes place in an abyss of material excess and spiritual loneliness where Bergdorf shopping sprees take the place of gorging on lark's tongue.
I confess to a soft spot for the four principal characters of the original HBO series, which always sought to wed economic privilege to feel-good feminism. Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte were successful single women in New York City, empowered consumers in a marketplace of goods and men. Unbound by any law but their own pleasure, they had the freedom to design their own romantic fate. It was an absurd libertarian fantasy, to be sure—Ayn Rand in Chanel and pumps—but in half-hour weekly doses it was not without its appeal. And even though there was something abidingly icky about the show's reverence for wealth, prestige, and brand names, the portrait of female friendship at its center rang true even for some women not in possession of "it" bags or Manhattan real estate.
The first movie didn't entirely succeed in translating that SATC spark to the screen—it was too long, and too self-indulgent, with a Cinderella ending that undercut the story's emotional truth. It was, however, a chance for those of us who harbored warm memories of the show to revisit the characters in their settled post-single lives and wish them well. Why, then, this morbid two-and-a-half-hour attempt to reanimate the series' corpse? The answer, of course, is the same as the solution this movie offers for all of life's problems: money.
Two years after her marriage to her long-elusive dream guy, Mr. Big (Chris Noth), Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is ensconced in a palatial Fifth Avenue apartment (she also keeps her old place across town as a seldom-used pied-à-terre, the first sign that this movie is economically off its rocker). But the compromises of conjugal life nag at her: Why won't he get off the couch and come out to glamorous events with her anymore? Is the best anniversary gift he can think of really a second TV? Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is content with her husband and son in Brooklyn but miserable at her corporate law job. Charlotte, a stay-at-home mother of two, is quietly going nuts and beginning to harbor suspicions about the intentions of her buxom Irish nanny. Samantha (Kim Cattrall), having sworn off monogamy forever, is still pursuing erotic bliss via random hookups and eternal youth via hormonal supplements.
In an opening set piece, Carrie's best gay friend, Stanford (Willie Garson), marries Charlotte's best gay friend, Anthony (Mario Cantone), in a wedding so over-the-top it appears to have been production-designed by Van Nest Polglase. Though it lacks any real laughs, this sequence bodes a better movie than the one that eventually follows. Liza Minnelli pops up to deliver a campy reperformance of the choreography from Beyonce's "All the Single Ladies," and one of the grooms raises a question that represents the movie's path not taken. Making the rounds at the reception, the loudmouthed Anthony boasts to his scandalized straight friends that he's been given permission by his husband-to-be to cheat under certain circumstances. But the issue of Anthony and Stanford's fidelity policy is never revisited—indeed, they're barely seen again—and the heterosexual model of monogamy, with its accompanying triangulation and handwringing, is the one that drearily prevails.
For the first hour or so, the movie meanders around New York, moping. The egregious awfulness doesn't kick in until Samantha, a PR flack, gets invited on an all-expenses-paid junket to Abu Dhabi by a sheik who wants her to represent his luxury hotel. For a good 20 minutes, the plot comes to a complete stop as the girls ooh and aah over first-class plane cabins, hotel grounds of Versailles-like proportions, and dusky manservants. This section resembles nothing so much as one of those glossy 20-page "advertorials" that sometimes appear in the Sunday Times magazine, touting the cosmopolitan lifestyle and business-friendly tax policies of some Middle Eastern nation or other. In a movie that's chockablock with product placement (Rolex, Dior, Maybach), the Abu Dhabi scenes feel like an extended plug for an entire country (though it's not clear which one, since the actual location shooting was done in Morocco). Eventually something besides the admiration of commodities does take place in Abu Dhabi, but let's just say the stakes are so low that, during the girls' final madcap sprint through an outdoor market disguised in burqas, the unspeakable outcome they're trying to forestall is the possibility of having to fly home in coach.
In his sharp assessment of SATC2, Matt Zoller Seitz calls the film "an accidental candid snapshot of the sick, dying heart of America." (DVD packagers, you have your blurb!) And it's true that this movie's absolute tone-deafness, its complete disconnection from our current economic and geopolitical reality, by moments achieves a perverse Warholian profundity. In one scene, Carrie asks her personal hotel butler, Guarau (Raza Jaffrey), about his family. His wife is back in India, he tells her; he flies home to see her every few months, when he can afford the fare. Carrie looks at him for a moment in silence, and we wonder: Is it possible she's confronting the unimaginable gulf that separates their two lives, the vast global network of consumption, exploitation, and injustice that's brought them together in this alien and alienating place? But no: Although she will later do Guarau a good turn, Carrie is merely wondering how she can get Big to appreciate her as much. Perched at the pinnacle of material comfort and social privilege in the waning days of the American empire, she can still find something to pout about.
Slate V: The critics on Sex and the City 2 and other new releases