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05/26/2010

The big 'Sex' wedding: Feel free to let your mind stray

by Jeremy Hooper

Satc2-07630-1Yes, it's ridiculous that Liza officiates the same-sex wedding. Yet despite early trepidation, I actually ended up being pretty okay with the way her cameo is handled. This is a series of films that prides itself in being over-the-top. Sex and the City 2, in particular, trades down on some of the original series' understated charms while drastically ratcheting up the sparkle. So if the creatives want to take certain gay clichés and stereotypes and blow them up for the purposes of fun, fantasy filmmaking, then fine. Plus Liza is both an NY and gay icon, which does fit into Carrie Bradshaw's whole Manhattan-go-lightly realm.

The gay choir singing show tunes? The white-on-eggshell-on-ecru opulence (replete with swans)? Screen Shot 2010-05-26 At 11.49.35 AmThe Busby Berkeley staging? Liza's ridonkulous take on "Single Ladies"? Sure, okay, whatever. This film is being billed as a summer romp -- romp away! For the most part, the stereotype stuff is done gently enough. And let's be real: There is truth in the opulence meme, especially in urban areas. In fact, when the camera pulled back and showed the expanse of the wedding space for the first time, the gay man sitting next to me at my Upper West Side screening whispered to his companion that this is exactly the kind of wedding that he wants for himself. So as for all this gay grandiosity, Screen Shot 2010-05-26 At 11.49.45 Amas interpreted by a summer popcorn flick's lens? Okay, I can certainly shut my mind off and go along with most all of it, even if (a) not really all that entertained by any of it, and (b) finding myself longing for a past day when the creators trusted that audience's minds as much as (if not more than) their eyes.

But here's what I absolutely hated. As in loathed. As in, might have thrown my Sprite at the celluloid had I not have been at a packed screening. It's the moment when...

...SPOILER ALERT...

...the Anthony Marentino character (Mario Cantone) quite matter-of-factly states, just minutes before his own wedding, that he himself hates the styling of the marital space, but that he has allowed his intended, Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson), to have whatever kind of grandiose ceremonial appointing he wants, just as long as he, Anthony, is allowed to "cheat" (his word) in their marriage. Yes, that's right: What will most surely become the most visible same-sex wedding in modern American filmmaking has one half of the couple saying there's the possibility that he might hookup with someone else before the newly wedded duo even reaches their honeymoon. And Anthony says all this while. greeting. guests. at. his. own. wedding!

Then, when Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) goes off and asks best buddy Stanford about it, he confirms that yes, it's true, but that he'll only allow it in the 45 states that don't recognize gay marriages. Now, this adds another layer of annoyance, not only because the comment handles the whole situation in such an incredibly flighty, flippant way, but also because the "45 that don't recognize" figure is technically incorrect. While only 5 states perform same-sex marriages, 6 states and the District of Columbia fully recognize them. So ironically, the one state they seem to be leaving off their list is, yep, you guessed it: SATC's treasured NEW YORK, where same-sex unions are recognized but not performed. What a cheat!

It's in the first twenty minutes of the film that this whole "cheat" pre-nup chatter happens. Personally, I couldn't help but wonder: What the f**k?!?

And the thing is: The writers don't even use a phrase like "open relationship," which would imply that both parties are into it. They don't suggest that there's a mutual support system going on, which would be a whole other narrative. Instead, writer Michael Patrick King -- a gay man, himself -- has the Anthony half of his same-sex couple saying, quite proudly and unemotionally, that he's worked out a deal in which husband-to-be Stanford will be allowed the most opulent wedding that Connecticut has ever seen, just as long as he's allowed to screw on the side. The stakes seems almost aggressive -- like the ore passive Stanford is being forced into something. It all comes across as one-sided -- an unreasonable tradeoff between a one-day affair and a lifetime free pass to have the same.

The terms are as cartoony as the film's eventual karaoke sessions and camel rides, so in a perfect world it would allow one to roll his or her eyes and move on. But the problem with that is that the takeaway messages here hold potential hazards far greater than the eye sores that are the girls' truly insane hump-mounting getups. Again: We're talking here about a movie that will be discussed across the country by many kinds of audiences in many kinds of (red) places. We're talking about a same-sex wedding revving up a megawatt film franchise. It's conversation that could've moved some minds on marriage equality. Conversation that might still move some minds on the subject. But one that will now come with an enforced sense of differentiation between the gays and the straights.

Which leads me to what's perhaps the most damning evidence that the gays' union is seen/presented as innately different: The double standard in terms of how it's all handled. If one of the four women had uttered such a comment on their own wedding days, this would've provided major plottage for the rest for the film (which, in an uber-long flick that's so utterly lacking in story, would've actually been welcome). But when the gay men make such a reveal, the ladies -- especially and obviously, Charlotte -- casually raise an eyebrow or two and think it over for a second, before essentially saying to themselves, "Oh, those gays -- now back to my salad course." In a world that revolves 100% around Carrie and company's romantic musings, this whole idea of non-monogamous marriage goes pretty much unexplored. That would *NEVER* happen if it were any of the primary characters we were talking about. Just think back to the last film, which had Miranda and Steve apart for an entire year because of one extramarital hookup -- with tears, arguments, move outs, and climatic Brooklyn Bridge reunions. Or in this film, when the mere hint that Harry & the nanny might be sharing in more than diaper changes raises concerns in Charlotte's preppy lil' head. Oh, and while Samantha's whole thing is that she doesn't want to marry because she does want to have lots of sex, when she has been coupled with someone, her plot points have also historically revolved around sex outside the relationship (either her own or someone else's) being a deal breaker. But with Anthony and Stanford? Eh, whatevs -- they're the gay boys who we suddenly and inexplicably are to accept as coupled/married. Married in a way unlike we've ever known in SATC world.

Now, to be fair, much of the rest of the film does revolve around the idea that marriages can be on the individual players' terms and not bound by anyone else's traditions. So this early scene could be seen as a way of setting up that idea.

Also to be fair: This is only one couple. There are certainly non-monogamous gays and heterosexuals who live in fine and functional open marriages, and this could be seen as just one such pairing.

However, the idea that this storyline is just fodder for the bigger theme rings false to me, since the point is not addressed later on in any marked way. And let's be honest: This is a pretty big break from "tradition" we're talking about. Since the writers chose to put the "Anthony can cheat" idea front and center when there was really no reason to even discuss it at all, one would think it'd at least get further exploration. Even if Stanford and Anthony are minor characters, their wedding is not a minor part of this film. If the creatives wanted to weave this particular point into the other stories, then it would seem that the notion would have to be revisited later in the flick, the same way that all four of women's relationship whatnots are taken on and tied up. But it never is. Carrie's comparably minor extramarital straying is treated like an international crisis, with monologues of resolve. Stanford and Anthony's are left in CT.

And in terms of the storyline being personal rather than archetypical: Well, Stanford and Anthony are the gay voices of this show. This wedding is front and center in this movie. Gay men have quite literally made this show what is, both technically and in terms of fan support. Everyone involved has to (or at least should) know that they have a voice and a platform to say something that reaches larger audiences than most activists could ever hope to reach. And yet the bone they throw is one that fosters a far-right, socially conservative, marriage ban-emboldening meme about two men being non-desirous/incapable of monogamous commitment?! To me, that's incredibly unfortunate.

As I always have to do when speaking on subjects like this, I must now reaffirm that I'm a married gay man (NY by way of CT, just like Stanford/Anthony) who, personally, could only conceive of having a monogamous marriage. That's what I want, that's what I've got. But that being said: I can honestly and easily step outside of myself and see this in a bigger picture sort of way. I'm not casting moral judgements on this, or against any kind of union. For me, the problems of relationship freedom only arise when certain couples' personal decision to be open is presented as the one, true gay norm, or when those gays who value monogamy are presented as doing nothing more than mimicking a heterosexual ideal. And in terms of the marriage conversation: For me the problems arise when those who don't choose monogamy for themselves deny the fact that marriage really is, by design and common understanding, a two person system (with the ability to be open serving as the very reason why marriage has never been the right fit for everyone). It wouldn't be fair to say that this film outright does those things, necessarily. But it would be fair, in my humble opinion, to say that a film that seemingly wants to advance the marriage equality movement has instead painted a portrait that fosters needless, heterosexist separations between "gay marriage" and "marriage, marriage." To me, that doesn't feel all that sexy.

***

*UPDATE: They did a similar plot line before: "Till death do us part" contrasted against a supposed gay "realist." But at least that time, it was presented as a mutually open relationship:

*Oh, and for the sake of full disclosure: I absolutely loathed the entire film as a whole, not just this one part. Story-less, weak jokes, and at times, offensive. All of the smart comedy and genuine characterization of the original show has now been fully stripped away. The women are ridiculous caricatures.

And the worst part? It's not even the fun romp that it wants to be. They could, potentially, transition into the world of AbFab and make it campy fantasy. But they don't. They still, to at least some extent, want you to see these women as archetypes. As relatable. Even while strutting, in Dior, in slow motion, to board their camels.

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