May 26, 2010 -- "C'mon ... c'mon ... c'mon ..."
So begins "Sex and the City 2," with sweeping shots of the New York City skyline and the all-too-predictable "Empire State of Mind." Apologies to the talented Alicia Keys, but in the context of the movie, her breathy chant brings to mind the throaty grunt of a woman trying to zip up a too-tight dress.
She can "c'mon" all she wants. It's just not going to happen.
The allure of "Sex and the City" faded when the HBO series ended in 2004. While the gals trotted onto the big screen in 2008, dripping in couture creations and painting the town glitter, sharp writing, character development and off-the-beaten-path plot lines didn't make it into their Birkin bags.
This time around, too, it's all spectacle, no substance. Sure, there's Chanel, there's Dior, there's Galliano. There's upper crust Manhattan and exotic Abu Dhabi. There's over-the-top opulence oozing out of this thing like bubbly out of a just-popped Dom Perignon. For "Sex and the City" fans craving the lifestyle of Carrie and company, the movie boasts enough eye candy to last through the winter.
But the story's lacking. It starts with the wedding of the best gay buddies of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis). Never mind that Stanford (Willie Garson) and Anthony (Mario Cantone) played arch enemies for most of the TV series -- their vows allow the girls to mull about marriage while watching Liza Minelli's desperate rendition of Beyonce's "Single Ladies." (Desperate because, she is, after all, Liza -- witnessing the grand dame of divas impersonate a disciple decades her junior is just depressing.)
Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is wedded to her war against menopause, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is thinking about divorcing her job, Charlotte is weighed down by two young children and Carrie, well, Carrie is Carrie. She's not happy. Though she landed the elusive Big (Chris Noth), even with him, married life is mundane. Not content to eat takeout on the couch and fall asleep to reality TV, she jumps at the chance to escape when Samantha asks the crew to come along on a publicity trip to a luxurious Abu Dhabi resort, all expenses paid thanks to a potential new client, an Arab sheik.
Maybe they should have stayed in Manhattan. The movie's treatment of the Middle East is off-putting, from Samantha's lack of regard for Muslim mores (she ends up in a souk ranting and raving about condoms) to jokes about female head coverings (Carrie marvels at a woman in a burka eating french fries) to the foursome's inability to adapt to another culture (they don four-figure-fitting outfits to ride camels and attempt to walk on sand dunes in stilettos) to the almost sickeningly extravagant retreat (they stay in a $22,000 per night suite, equipped with four butlers and four Maybachs).
Yes, "Sex and the City" has always tried to push the envelope. But it's sad that the franchise that broke ground with frank, honest talk about sex and relationships has had to resort to politically questionable puns and camel-toe cracks to get laughs.
Scenes in the Middle East (which were actually filmed in Morocco) are both sumptuous and silly. The slow motion, open-mouthed stare that comes over Carrie when she runs into her former fiance, Aiden (John Corbett), at a spice market is pure romantic comedy cliche. The crew's karaoke club performance, complete with belly dancers and back-up singers, might have been more appropriate in "Mamma Mia!" The panoramic shot of the girls strutting through the dunes in ludicrous desert ensembles makes them look like aliens descended from the planet Bergdorf Goodman (and not in a good way).
Ultimately, what's most frustrating about "Sex and the City 2" is that it's all "sparkle" -- Carrie's current obsession, given that she doesn't find her marriage to Big dazzling enough.
But sparkle dulls. And beyond the flashy fashion and locations, there's nothing here that "Sex and the City" fans haven't seen before. The plots resolve themselves in predictable ways, all the better for the gals to reunite a third time, maybe in a retirement home.
For many movie-goers, though, the sparkle will be enough. A couple of cocktails with the girls beforehand could make "Sex and the City 2" a perfectly lovely experience. (Though go easy on the cosmos -- diehard fans won't want to take a bathroom break, and this saga's 2½ hours long.)
But for those wanting more, hoping for the pre-big-screen "Sex and the City," heed some advice from Carrie herself. During that karaoke scene as she sings "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar," she belts out, "And I know too much to go back and pretend."
Yeah, we all do.