May 26 2010 12:00 AM

Sex and the sandy: Fun is just a mirage

Once upon a time — way back in 1998 — there was a fresh new HBO series about four single women slashing and sashaying their way through the Big Apple dating scene. It was called “Sex and the City,” and it was witty and sophisticated and steamy and, in some eyes, scandalous.

But every party must eventually end, and “Sex” wound down in 2004, after six sultry seasons. That wasn’t enough for many fans, however and, in 2008, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) strutted onto the big screen for one more romp, which brought in over $152 million at the box office. Convinced there was still life in the franchise, studio executives have brought the queens of quips back once more in “Sex and the City 2,” a textbook illustration of what happens when old friends overstay their welcome and/ or a once-delicious dessert passes its sell-by date.

The first “Sex” wrapped up the on-again/off-again love story of Carrie and Mr. Big (Chris Noth) with a lavish wedding. So now, “2” feels compelled to sow the seeds of domestic discord (as clumsily as possible) in order to keep the relationship crackling. The first hour of “2” finds everyone plodding around New York, complaining about their sorry situations: Lawyer Miranda is bristling at bad treatment at work; Charlotte doesn’t trust her va-va-voomish new Irish nanny; Samantha agonizes over the onset of menopause; and Carrie, who can now make Mt. Everest out of the most minute molehill, ties herself up in knots over such ghastly situations as Big putting his feet on the couch, or ordering take-out Japanese fusion cuisine once too often. The horror!

The solution to all this is a quick trip to Abu Dhabi, which allows the quartet to strut around in costumes Cher might have dismissed as too gaudy and over-the-top while continuing to fret over the problems they were supposed to leave behind. Carrie runs into former flame Aidan (John Corbett) and kisses him, resulting in a marathon of handwringing, introspective dismay that would make even Edith Wharton roll her eyes.

The sparkle and sassiness that regularly spiked the series’ scripts has now been replaced by cutesy buzzwords (“interfriend-tion,” “mid-wife crisis”) and painful punnery (“Abu Dhabi doo!”). Carrie’s lacerating observations about love are now about as sharp as Grandma’s butter knife, and Samantha’s volcanic lustiness has turned into an ugly, obnoxious kind of sexual aggressiveness. Charlotte and Miranda share the only moment in the movie that truly hits the mark: a semi-sloshed conversation in which they share their conflicted feelings about being mommies.

Honest emotions are as scarce as Jaclyn Smith Kmart couture in “2,” which strains to celebrate the joys of excess by drooling over fussy dcor, private planes, glittery gowns and (of course) closets the size of Bloomingdale’s. Yet writer Michael Patrick King never finds a plot to tie together this 147-minute commercial for clothes you’ll never wear, vacations you’ll never take and parties you’ll never be invited to. The movie is a midtown traffic jam of half-baked ideas (bellydancers gyrating to Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” Liza Minnelli presiding over a same-sex wedding, a brief but delightful flashback to the ladies’ looks circa 1986, etc.) and stultifying psychobabble about middle-aged melancholy.

“Have any of you ladies ever been to the Middle East before?” a tour guide asks. “No,” Samantha crows, “we’re all virgins!” Yeah, maybe back in the days when Madonna was still an unknown. Like so many belated sequels, “Sex and the City 2” is a stinging reminder of how the tried-and-true can become the tried-and-tired.

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