In an early scene of Sex and the City 2, a singing and dancing Liza Minnelli makes a cameo appearance. I'm sorry to report that her performance seems a lot like HBO's beloved franchise these days: tired and a little out of tune.
Out of tune how? It's been two years since we last saw the girlfriends Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha, in the first Sex and the City film, and in that time a crushing downturn has devastated the global economy. But the Great Recession barely registers with these high-living gals.
Sure, there are gestures at the trouble. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), for one, is having difficulty selling her apartment amid the real estate bust. But this is a film in which a plot point hangs on the shattering possibility that someone might have to - ulp - fly coach. Even one of the film's best scenes, an emotional conversation about motherhood between cynical Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and idealistic Charlotte (Kristen Davis), strikes a distasteful note when they wonder how moms who can't afford servants get by.
Sex and the City 2 picks up two years after the first film. All the friends except the pleasure-seeking publicist Samantha (Kim Cattrall) have settled down. Lawyer Miranda is unhappy at work. Charlotte is overwhelmed with two young children. Writer Carrie and her smirking husband Big (Chris Noth) are celebrating an anniversary, but Carrie frets that they are turning into dull homebodies. Then Samantha, wooing a client in Abu Dhabi, whisks the ladies from New York to a luxury hotel on the Persian Gulf. A lot of the action unfolds there, including much slapstick humor and the reappearance of Carrie's old flame Aidan (John Corbett).
The dramatic stakes are altogether lower in the sequel, since the urgent question that propelled the first film, and the whole series - will Carrie and Big get together? - has been answered. I think that's actually to the benefit of the new film, a mostly enjoyable light comedy that largely forgoes the first film's soapy histrionics. But although the series didn't shy from light comedy, what kept it compelling for six years was its pointed, sometimes painful insights into friendship, work, relationships. Sex and the City 2 has too little to offer in that vein.
What writer/director/producer Michael Patrick King's film does have to offer, by way of insights, is a somewhat clumsy feminist message. The main occasion for it is the visit to Abu Dhabi, where the friends make a series of combative statements about the status of women there. One is cringe-inducing, a ghastly karaoke performance of "I Am Woman." In another instance, more vivid, Samantha defiantly simulates sex in front of a group of angry Arab men.
I'm not sure what to make of all this. The series never went in for big statements about politics - including, for better or worse, gender politics. Still, the series also never stayed away from tidy, even pat, conclusions, and near the end, in a garish sight gag, the film likewise offers one regarding Middle Eastern women: Under the veil, they're just like shallow, wealthy New Yorkers.