On the nightly news (for the six people who still watch that), the Middle East is often a barren land of despair, where the women are cloaked in shawls and the men look armed and angry. More often than not, Hollywood reinforces that perception: Iraq is grim and deadly in The Hurt Locker. In Pakistan, A Mighty Heart’s Angelina Jolie weeps for her kidnapped husband. Iran is the hostile ground where Sally Field is taken hostage in 1991’s Not Without My Daughter. And we haven’t even mentioned Rendition, Brothers, or Jarhead yet. (Why is Jake Gyllenhaal always cast in these films?)
This Memorial Day weekend, the movies are correcting—or maybe overcorrecting. Not since Aladdin’s magic-carpet ride has the Muslim world looked like such an amusement park. The desert sand glistens like at a Las Vegas resort, and camels are the new must-have accessory. But they’re no match for who’s about to invade: the Botoxed Sex and the City girls and the brawned-up Gyllenhaal (there he is again!) as the star of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I’d like to tell you that they actually do the region some good, but judging from both these films, the Middle East isn’t hostile or dangerous; it’s just a very boring place.
Persia is a best-selling videogame, and now, thanks to Jerry Bruckheimer, we have a cinematic version that's only slightly better than the Super Mario Bros. movie. The billboards for this action film show enough skin—look at the size of Gyllenhaal's biceps!—to imply that Persia is sexy. Sadly, there's no truth in advertising. Prince of Persia isn't just a chaste adventure (he hardly shares a romantic moment with his princess, played by Gemma Arterton), it's also a fairly confusing one. The plot is what would happen if The Lion King were swallowed by Back to the Future—time travel mixed with a banished prince wrongly accused of murdering his father, etc. Gyllenhaal is a natural movie star, but he seems as lost in this adventure as the rest of us. Who can follow all the bad sword fights? Not to mention the accents: why do ancient Persians sound British?
Speaking of being out of place—how did the Sex and the City girls end up in Abu Dhabi? The fab four have taken trips together before (Los Angeles, Mexico) without wading in Brady Bunch-goes-to-Hawaii territory. But those destinations worked because they are variations on New York, not a city with an entirely different cultural compass. Abu Dhabi is the last place Carrie should be, because it takes the sex—and the fun—right out of the franchise. The shopping is lame (Carrie is reduced to buying $20 shoes), the drinks are tame, and the caravan outfits resemble the pajamas Michael Jackson wore to court. When Samantha tries to kiss a tourist on the beach, she's arrested. Is the movie suggesting that when you're pushing menopause, your sex life dries up like the desert?
The summer movie season has never been a place for realism—Iron Man 2 is a flying billionaire—but you have to wonder why the filmmakers traveled so far just to milk the same old clichés. It’s not just bad storytelling they’re guilty of. Some organizations are claiming that Sex and the City 2 is anti-Muslim, because of all the stereotypes it perpetuates. If there’s another sequel to either of these films, I’ll pretend to have lost my passport. I need a vacation from these onscreen vacations.