For nearly 100 episodes of the witty HBO series (and throughout one very belabored 2 1/2-hour big screen movie), Carrie Bradshaw and her three best girlfriends emerged as tasteful, sophisticated, cultured and witty - a gold standard for urbane-minded women everywhere.
So whose idea was it to transform them into a gaggle of shrieking ugly Americans in "Sex and the City 2," a sour, slapsticky sequel that seems to think making fun of Middle Eastern women in traditional dress is the funniest thing in the world?
The movie is a familiar fish-out-of-water saga, in which four sexually liberated New York City women travel to Abu Dhabi and send shock waves through this repressive society. But the movie's treatment of Middle Eastern mores isn't just racist and condescending; it's also desperately unfunny and crass.
Indeed, even Bob Hope and Bing Crosby at their cheesiest in "Road to Morocco" probably would have winced at the climatic scene here, in which our indefatigable heroines don burqas in order to escape an enraged mob of Arab men.
One minute longer but not one iota smarter than 2008's interminable original, "Sex and the City 2" finds Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) two years into her marriage to Big (Chris Noth) and suffering pangs of discontent: Why is the man she loves always so intent upon ordering take-out and spending the evening on the couch? Charlotte (Kristin Davis), meanwhile, is reckoning with a 2-year-old daughter who won't stop crying and a buxom nanny (Alice Eve) who won't wear a bra.
Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is stuffing herself with vitamins in a desperate attempt to ward off menopause. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), whose conflict barely registers, is butting heads with a misogynist new partner at her firm.
Yup - just like the first film, writer-director-producer Michael Patrick King has basically served up an episode of the television series and stretched it out to ungodly lengths. The women end up on an all-expenses weeklong trip to Abu Dhabi, where they are ensconced in a $22,000-a-night hotel suite.
When Carrie stumbles upon her old flame Aidan (John Corbett), she finds herself tempted to stray from Big. There are mixed metaphors galore on the soundtrack, as Carrie philosophizes in voice-over about the "terrible twos" of marriage. There are slow-motion shots of the Speedo-clad, soaking wet bodies of an Australian rugby team, who are inexplicably also staying at the hotel.
And yet, the more things stay the same in the world of "Sex and the City," the less interesting they become. With only a few token references to the tumultuous economy, the movie comes across as a moldy relic - a nostalgia piece for run-amok consumerism. This might be an unfair complaint - the entire franchise is built on wish-fulfillment fantasy - but one of the things that gave "Sex and the City" its weight on television was how attuned it was to the American zeitgeist, even when the zeitgeist turned sorrowful in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
This movie's idea of cultural relevancy, though, is to stage a gay wedding populated exclusively by "queen" stereotypes, including Liza Minnelli performing Beyonce's "Single Ladies" (accompanied - natch - by two male Liza impersonators.)
That's the rub of this increasingly grating movie, which wags its finger at the repressive treatment of women in the Middle East, but then portrays its own characters - gay, straight, female, male, Caucasian and Arab - as grotesque stereotypes. Despite Parker's game performance, Carrie comes across here more unbearably whiny and self-involved than ever before: Most of us would kill to have this women's problems, among them a negative book review in The New Yorker and a husband who buys her a flat-screen TV for a wedding present.
Then again, Parker fares far better than poor Kim Cattrall, who finds herself humiliated far beyond reason by the screenplay. At various points, Samantha slathers her face in mashed yams, sweats profusely through a hot flash and applies aphrodisiacal vitamins to her private parts. An icon of female sexuality is reduced to a horny old lady punchline.
When did King stop trusting his own knack for recognizable emotion and begin relying instead on overwrought melodrama and dopey slapstick? By my count, there is exactly one scene in this movie that almost rings true, where Miranda and Charlotte sit together in the hotel suite and confess their exhaustion about trying to raise their children.
Each time the scene develops momentum, though, King interrupts it with a dumb running gag. Miranda keeps forcing Charlotte to take gulps from a cocktail - and any potential warmth and humanity is quickly defused. On television, these characters came across as real people living a deluxe version of ordinary life. In the "Sex and the City" movies, they seem like little more than live-action cartoons.