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Movie Review

Sex and the City 2

Haute times in the desert: Carrie and her pals are back, this time taking their party shoes to Abu Dhabi. Please.

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 27, 2010

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Twelve years, one beloved HBO series, and two feature films on, the “Sex and the City’’ gals have been reduced to Bratz dolls for grown women. Even the shoes seem snap-on, and don’t ask about the emotions. What was once a playful, pretend-shallow soap opera with pockets of feeling is now shallow for keeps — a dunderheaded comic melodrama with clothes to die for and dialogue to shrink from. It’s downright depressing.

Dolls belong in the playroom, and Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) belong in New York City, or, rather, that fairy-tale Manhattan envisioned by writer Candace Bushnell and series producer Darren Star. It’s a place where couture dresses are always one paycheck within reach, where long town cars with eligible businessmen purr outside, where the sex is great, and the lunches never end. As fantasies go, it was irresistible; maybe it’s even more so in a recession.

The great mistake of “Sex and the City 2,’’ then, is to send its characters out of New York and into the United Arab Emirates for a weeklong, all-expenses-paid vacation at a swank Abu Dhabi hotel. Just so we’re clear on this: Four fun-loving American fashionistas descend upon a country where their lifestyle and clothing choices would get them whipped if they were citizens, where earlier this month a woman who reported being raped by six men was charged with illegal sex and faces life in prison. But what does that matter when you can ride a camel across the desert in your Christian Louboutins?

For the first 60 minutes of its punishing 2 1/2-hour running time, while the charac ters are still in New York, “SATC2’’ is acceptable and even entertaining. The movie opens with the wedding of the group’s pet homosexuals (really, every girl should have one), Anthony (Mario Santone) and Stanford (Willie Garson), and the ceremony is so enthusiastically over the top that you gladly give in. To see Liza Minnelli — what’s left of her — jazzhand her way through a rendition of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies’’ is to access a plane of high camp known only to the finer female impersonators.

Soon, though, we’re bogged down in the problems of real life as experienced by pampered urban women. Actually, the stresses faced by Charlotte and Miranda as they deal with colicky toddlers, chauvinistic bosses, braless nannies, and weary spouses are realistic and amusing enough to score a few points, and Samantha’s battles with menopause — she packs enough hormones in her purse to start a bio-engineering lab — are broadly funny.

But what are we to do with Carrie, the once-smart author who the feature films have turned into a ninny? Now married to Mr. Big (Chris Noth, patient as the tides), Carrie can’t stomach staying in two nights running, and her refusal to allow her husband even to watch TV in bed is annoying rather than cute. Her doubts are reflected in the title of her latest book, “I Do, Do I?’’ but what might make for an insightful look into marital ambivalence in another film (or on the TV show) sounds only like whining here. When Big suggests two nights off a week, you hardly blame him.

And when our heroine gets to Abu Dhabi and encounters old flame Aidan (John Corbett, the bland go-to stud of chick flicks), the stage is set for more of the forced emotional dilemmas that made the first film seem so strained. (Remember when Carrie’s wedding to Big was canceled because they couldn’t reach each other on the phone?)

That’s the least of the movie’s problems. Belly-dancers and all, “SATC2’’ parlays a gaga tourista vision of the Middle East that hasn’t changed since the days of Rudolph Valentino, and the insertion of four Ugly Americans into a Muslim capital makes for weird dissonances rather than light comedy. How are we supposed to read the scene in which Samantha incurs the wrath of a crowd of Arab men by disrobing in a marketplace after a hot flash?

Or how about the nightclub sequence where the characters perform a karaoke rendition of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman’’? There are so many levels of unintended irony there — glitzy Western narcissists singing a feminist anthem in a country with a notably lousy record on women’s rights — that the mind boggles. That scene was shot on a Brooklyn set, by the way, and the rest of the Middle East scenes in Morocco. It seems Abu Dhabi couldn’t handle even the script for this movie.

Oh, right, it’s all meant to be in fun. Well, good luck with that. The first “Sex and the City’’ film was such a girls-night-out pop event that it was easy for fans to overlook the fact that the movie itself was awful. They’ll have to work a lot harder this time. All movies require suspension of disbelief, but “Sex and the City 2’’ drives a crueler bargain. It asks that we be as brainless as everyone onscreen.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movienation.

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SEX AND THE CITY 2

Directed by: Michael Patrick King

Written by: King, based on the characters created by Candace Bushnell and the TV series created by Darren Star

Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Chris Noth, John Corbett

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 146 minutes

Rated: R (strong sexual content, language, a few male buttocks, consumerism as religion, raging self-absorption, shoes)

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