Sex and the City 2 divides like no other

Rarely has a movie inspired a debate as caustic — or as sexually divisive — as Sex and the City 2, a comedy of fashion and privilege that’s being dismissed by critics as shallow and ridiculous, and embraced by fans as a female fantasy that men cannot understand.

Male and female audiences are often separated by subject matter, but Sex and the City 2 is doing more than that: When I saw it on a recent weeknight, I was one of two men in the audience of some 100 women. Warner Bros.’ exit polls show 90 per cent of the opening weekend audience was female, compared to 83 per cent for the first Sex and the City film.

The sequel follows its four characters — Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), Charlotte York-Goldenblatt (Kristin Davis), Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) and Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) — as they reach mid-life and have new problems, none of them involving not having enough to wear. Typical problem: Carrie’s husband, Big (Chris Noth) buys a TV set for the bedroom so they can watch old movies together. Carrie takes this as an attack on her marriage and retreats to her old apartment, which is less fabulous than her present one, to recover.

Most of the movie is set on a trip to Abu Dhabi, where the women live in a palatial hotel, have cute servants and luxury cars, bring their Western attitudes toward sex to this sexually modest country, and wonder at the Arab women wearing veils. (Samantha comments it would cut down on their Botox bills.) Some viewers say their views of the Muslim women are a fair representations of Western curiosity and attitudes; others complain that they’re disrespectful and vacuous.

The movie both celebrates the aging of women, or at least tolerates it (Samantha is shown sweating out her menopause) and turns most encounters into a striving for youth (Samantha tries to have sex with every attractive man in sight). An American branding expert named Adam Hanft, who runs a marketing company, says the movie reinforces fundamentalist stereotypes that Americans are decadent, superficial, materialistic robots.

He calls it capitalism at its most self-centered.

“I don’t know if it’s going to make a lot of money, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it created a lot of terrorists,” Hanft said in a statement. “If I were running recruiting for the Taliban or Al Qaida, I’d put clips of it in every online video.”

Hanft (who declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed) is on the fringes of critical response, but he’s not alone in his extreme reaction, one that sometimes cuts across gender lines. For instance, Canwest News Service film critic Katherine Monk gave the film three stars, saying, “The cast deserves most of the credit for making a lot of the blue humour, genital jokes and vulgarity palatable through character depth and dramatic emphasis, but it’s still a weak victory for the movie — as well as the gals.” On the other hand, Roger Ebert started his review by writing, “Some of these people make my skin crawl. The characters of Sex and the City 2 are flyweight bubbleheads living in a world which rarely requires three sentences in a row. Their defining quality is consuming things. They gobble food, fashion, houses, husbands, children, vitamins and freebies. They must plan their wardrobes on the phone, so often do they appear in different basic colours, like the plugs you pound into a Playskool workbench.”

Some women see such critiques as a typically male reaction. “I still don’t understand WHY SO MANY GUYS bother to watch this movie and then BOTHER US with their comments,” one London woman wrote on the Mail Online website. “Seriously, just go watch your football and macho movies with bombs exploding all over and just let us watch Sex and the City. We love it, just GET OVER IT.”

Part of the reason for the sexual differences is that most film critics are men, and some of them are using Sex and the City 2 to sharpen their blades. Rex Reed of the New York Observer wrote a classic hatchet job: “Dragging its deplorable carcass into infinity, Sex and the City 2 is so bad you can’t even watch the trailer. . . . The women — too old now to pout, whine and babble about their wet dreams, affluent and successful for reasons that are never clear — are all vain, narcissistic, selfish, superficial and really rather stupid. . . . The insipid screenplay and catatonic direction seem chloroformed.”

Such harsh reaction — the movie scored a very low 17 per cent on the Rotten Tomatoes website that aggregates reviews — may be part of the reason that the $70-million movie made a disappointing $51 million on its first three-day weekend, down from the $57 million earned by the first film.