As I was watching the sweetly good-natured but somewhat superficial 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I was left wondering if there could be a big screen story on minister-turned-children’s TV host Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers.” Was there enough material to open up this kind, affirming, gentle man into a three-dimensional character worthy of a deep dive? I’m still unsure after watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks as Rogers. The filmmakers made the conscious decision to construct a fictional narrative of family strife between a father (Chris Cooper) and his son, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a magazine writer. Fred Rogers begins as an assignment for Lloyd and becomes the change agent, pushing Lloyd, in the gentlest and most empathetic manner, to reflect on his anger over his father’s abandonment and to work through his feelings and potentially forgive the old man. Like the PBS star, the movie is sweet and optimistic and gentle and just a little bit boring. The film follows a pretty strict formula of catharsis, and while it works it doesn’t make A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feel more than a TV-movie plot attached to a malnourished Fred Rogers biopic. I understand the storytelling difficulties of trying to make a soft-spoken man who isn’t given to long-winded speeches a starring role, so it makes sense that his presence would be a catalyst for a family in crisis, basically serving as therapist. Hanks is fitting and affecting, and once again I feel like there are glimmers of a more complex man underneath the persona we’ll never be treated to in any big screen examination, like about his struggles raising his own children, his crisis of relevancy late in life. The majority of the movie is a father/son story that is well acted and pretty much fine, and “pretty much fine” is a perfect description of the film as a whole. It’s nothing you’ll regret seeing and it will generally be uplifting and sincere, but it’s basically a 108-minute greeting card.
Nate’s Grade: B
Sex and the City is a cultural phenomenon that women around the globe celebrate. When the show first premiered on HBO in the late 90s, it chronicled the lives of professional women that wanted to have it all, and they wouldn’t apologize for their sexual appetites or fashion splurges. The successful show then launched a very successful movie in 2008, but the movie tied up everyone’s storylines in fairly nice little bows. So now where to? For the fans, it hardly matters. Sex and the City is a cause of celebration, a girl’s night out with cosmo in hand. The content of the movie seems almost like an afterthought. Fans aren’t going to be too picky but there is a lot to pick at with Sex and the City 2.
It’s two years after the events in the first film. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her husband, John James “Mr. Big” Preston (Chris Noth), are settling into married life. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) feels mistreated and unappreciated by her boss because she’s a woman. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has her hands full with two young children, and motherhood in reality isn’t at glamorized as she thought. She’s also worried that her husband (Evan Handler) might cheat with their busty Irish nanny (Alice Eve, the “10” from She’s Out of My League). They girls dub her “Erin Go-bra-less,” I think as a weird wordplay on Erin Brockovich. Your guess is as good as mine. And then there’s Samantha (Kim Cattrall) who is 52 and desperately fighting to look and feel young again. She has a regiment of hormone pills and creams she uses daily to keep the encroaching effects of menopause at bay. To give the girls an excuse to get away, a rich middle Eastern sheik wants to persuade Samantha to do some PR work for his hotel, so he invites the foursome on a fabulous all-expenses-paid trip to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
I know coming from my non-demographic perspective that I’m going to have some difficulty relating to these main characters, but these gals are so self-absorbed in their petty, rich people problems, I question who could really relate to much of this drama. Charlotte is being driven mad by the toll of motherhood, which is relatable, except her toll involves staying at home in a rich apartment, never having to worry about money, and handing off her screaming kids to the nanny. Not relatable. Carrie’s dilemma is the most forced and therefore the worst of the bunch. After having her storyline tied up in the first film, where can she go? She has got the guy, she got her wedding, she has a luxurious apartment, and her man wants to spend time with her. She’s in her mid-to-late 40s at this point and wants to still go out every night on the town. She complains that they stay in TWO NIGHTS a week. When Big gets her a thoughtful anniversary gift, a flat-screen TV in the bedroom so that they can watch old romantic movies TOGETHER, she pouts and says, “Jewelry would have been nice.” Her main problem is that her guy, the one she married, wants to spend time with his wife in their comfy abode and relax TOGETHER. When Carrie asks for two days leave so she can get some work done on an article, Big allows her the time off and then wonders if that apply to their marriage: each takes a day or two off to concentrate on work, relax, catch up with friends, etc. It’s her idea, but when he voices it suddenly it becomes threatening and again all about Carrie. She responds, “Is this because I’m a bitch wife who nags you?” Well, at least she cuts to the chase. These are the problems that people have when they don’t actually have any real problems.
There is one, count ’em, one great scene in the movie and it doesn’t involve Carrie or the ever increasingly cartoonish Samantha. Charlotte and Miranda are by themselves sipping from cocktails and confessing about the hardships of motherhood. Both take sips and then admit a guilty secret. One says she feels like a failure at being a mother. Another admits that being a stay-at-home mom just isn’t enough for her in life. They both admit that they love their children dearly, but have enjoyed the time away from them. The scene feels genuine, with some heartfelt laughs derived from the situation. Charlotte bashfully admits that her first thoughts following the idea that her husband might cheat with the nanny were, “No, I can’t lose that nanny,” and it feels honest and right for her character, plus it’s funny. And then they admit something that the audience had fortuitously forgotten in that moment — they do all this with help. Charlotte has a nanny and Miranda has her grandmother-in-law living with them to help raise the kids. A really nicely written and acted moment that peels away to showcase the complexities of the modern mother is dashed. Even the universal concerns we can all relate to (infidelity, doubt, settling, getting older) take a backseat to the overly manufactured melodrama.
The rampant consumerism hasn’t slowed down despite the economic meltdown of 2008. Carrie makes a quick comment about how it “wasn’t a good time to sell her apartment,” and so she keeps her spacious apartment along with the multi-million dollar one she lives with Big. The sheer celebration of consumerism has turned into blind worship; it’s all about the stuff. The characters have long since burrowed into their types (the fussy one, the career-minded one, the sexually voracious one, and the self-involved one), and those types have become entrenched, and the men have become just another accessory for a large closet of goods. The real star of this movie is the outlandish, sometimes garish, fashion, and there is heaps of it. One outing into the Arabic desert makes use of three separate costume changes. The name-dropping and product placement are aggressive. For the first film I wrote: “‘I’m not going to charge the film with setting back feminism or anything but why do the main characters have to be so shallow, brand-conscious, and live to splurge? The emphasis on buy, buy, buy to make yourself feel good is a rather sad and empty message.” The Sex and the City movies have morphed into consumerist, female wish-fulfillment fantasies, enabling Carrie’s princess indulgences and superficial demands. The girls are all panicked towards the end about he possibility of, gasp, flying coach, you know, like the rest of us. These women haven’t lived in anything resembling reality for some time. It’s a shame that in these cost-conscious times, the Sex and the City universe seems unaffected. I would have enjoyed seeing how these high-powered women dealt with the repercussions of an economic recession (not to mention Carrie dealing with the death of print publishing). Yes, I know, it’s designed to be escapism, and that’s all well and good, but I wanted to escape from these characters and their lifestyles.
But what will get the most attention is the extensively long escapade in the Middle East, like Sex and the City is planning to solve global politics. Obviously, there is something wrong with how women are treated in several majority Muslim countries, from the demands to cover themselves in heavy garments so as not to tempt men, to the void of rights, to honor killings and stonings, and murdering women just because they went to school. This is a serious matter. These countries are behind the times and women deserve an equal footing and an equal say, and several contemporary movies have dealt with these issues in a thoughtful manner. Sex and the City 2, on the other hand, takes a patronizing approach that is culturally insensitive at best and downright racially insulting at worst. These ambassadors of modern feminist thinking basically show themselves to the Arab world as the quintessential ugly Americans; the ladies of Sex and the City are exactly what radicals think about when they order women to cover up or else. These women are self-indulgent, materialistic, vapid, and riding high on Western self-righteousness. I am in no way apologizing for how large portions of the Muslim world treat women, but Carrie and company are quite possible the worst ambassadors to argue the case for feminine equality. And remember, they complain about their pity-party problems while on an all-expenses-paid vacation to a lifestyle of lavish luxury in the Middle East. They reduce the problem of Muslim women into simplistic, indignant quips. It’s more than a little insulting to have somebody wearing clownish outfits telling women in other countries how to dress. This foursome is brash and in-your-face with their strong sense of cultural superiority, practically baiting the locals into making a scene. At one point, Samantha is jailed and shocked that the authorities might be upset that she was caught having sex on their beach. Don’t these women understand culture clash? In the end the women are chased out of town and you almost (I repeat — almost) feel for the other side.
Even worse than the ethically dubious moralizing is the fact that this extended portion of the movie (about 100 minutes) grinds the plot to a halt. Most of the storylines are set up before the trip, and then they are all tied up somehow when the women return, though the time in Abu Dhabi seems to have had no effect. Miranda’s conflict with her boss is resolved before the gals ever get on a plane, so she becomes essentially tour guide and confidant for the trip. Samantha is denied her plethora of pills at the airport, so she becomes the slapstick comic relief trying to stave off menopause. Her pun-heavy dialogue is full of groaners like, “Lawrence of my labia.” Her sex kitten act is getting as tiresome as her futile attempts to keep Mother Nature at bay. Samantha is the same from the beginning of the movie to the end, and fans will probably rejoice at this lack of character development. The entire misadventure in Abu Dhabi feels like a Hope & Crosby road picture, or, worse, one of those lame TV-movie gimmicks from sitcoms (luckily Carrie is spared the curse of the tiki idol).
But whatever I say will be regarded with shrugs by the legions of Sex and the City fans. They’ve grown with these characters over 12 years, so I understand the attachment fans feel. Like I said before, the movie medium is not the ideal place for these ladies. In half hour doses their quirks and problems seem cute, but when stretched to a bloated running time they come across as vapid and whiny. The conflicts don’t seem too relatable and the humor is once again tied to slapstick and leaden puns. The problem is that after six seasons and one 145-minute movie, the characters feel tapped out. They’ve been through plenty and now the crew is just coming up with whatever excuse they can have to reunite the cast on the big screen (stay tuned for Sex and the City 3 … in Space!).
Nate’s Grade: C