The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (2008)

Director: Sanaa Hamri

Predictably, unlike the crowded screenings for The Dark Knight or Swing Vote, when it came to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, the reserved press section had enough vacancies that the seats next to mine were released rather quickly. Soon enough, a kind, educated couple and their adorable, roughly nine-year-old aspiring blogger/film critic daughter became my impromptu movie buddies. Surprised to see such a young face amidst a theatre filled with halter top-wearing, high-heeled shoe adorned teenage girls who all looked like they’d mistaken the screening for a Gossip Girl audition or a Miley Cyrus concert, I eagerly chatted with the amiable family.

Quickly I learned that their daughter was not only the biggest fan of The Sisterhood but had also — unlike this reviewer whose schedule prevented proper preparation — recently watched the original 2005 film a few times earlier in the week to double check where the director Ken Kwapis had bookmarked the lives of Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), Lena (Alexis Bledel), Carmen (America Ferrera), and Bridget (Blake Lively). While Kwapis didn’t return for the Sisterhood reunion, Warner Brothers made an excellent choice in bringing in the talented Sanaa Hamri, who is not only a female director and thus more in tune with memories of female post-adolescent identity crises but also one whose wonderfully uplifting and overlooked romantic comedy Something New was one of the best entries into the genre over the last few years.

Although unaware of any changes behind the scenes, the contagious enthusiasm expressed by my new young seatmate made me recall just how surprisingly good the first movie had been. Given its intelligence, humor, warmth, and compassion, it put to shame all of the forced women’s bonding films such as the anti-feminist Georgia Rule and stereotypical Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

Additionally, the fact that a girl that young could view the film speaks volumes for its family friendly quality. And although both the original and especially the sequel do contain some issues that make the most of its PG-13 rating, the filmmakers and screenwriter Elizabeth Chandler (taking plots from numerous titles in the series by Ann Brashares) ensure that it’s all handled with taste. Besides, luckily it appeared that my seatmate seemed to have the ideal parents with whom she could consult were there any lingering concerns she wanted to discuss after the film. Therefore it was joyous to see parents and children both enjoying a film together and appreciating aspects of it on different levels as some jokes played better to males in the audience than females and others struck a chord with varying generations.

Catching up with The Sisterhood’s foursome after their first year of college, we find them all dealing with that instantly relatable feeling of trying to reconcile the concerns and friendships of their youth with their new busy lives studying and living in various places. As those who are of a certain age are readily aware, it’s a tough transitional time where friendships are put to the test but the girls all continue loyally shipping the worn pair of blue jeans to each other in the hopes they will slide not only into the denim but the miraculous good fortune the jeans are purported to inspire. However, predictably we learn that over the previous freshman year, The Sisterhood has started to drift, barely e-mailing one another with some beginning to view their traditional ceremony at the beginning of the summer as “forced” rather than the spontaneous and exciting ritual they’d begun in the original film.

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Set over the course of another fateful summer and unfortunately given little in the way of shared screen time, we follow the adventurous events of each girl’s life in Chandler’s jam-packed script. In trying to be all things to all people, the screenplay grew in both complexity and length but unfortunately not in quality, most likely similar to those infamous, unhygienic jeans which have barely survived after too many trips through the washing machine along with racking up the frequent flyer miles from globe-trotting via FedEx. While overall, the film is so warm and comforting that it reminds one of a teddy bear, Sisterhood 2 is so overstuffed with plot points and introduces too many useless new characters that it is bursting at the seams and leaking stuffing and plot threads throughout.

Before the smash success of Ferrera’s Ugly Betty made her the marquee name of the sequel, the former film’s biggest “name” star, Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel, reprises her role as the ultra-feminine, sweet-natured, sketch-happy Lena. Thrown for a heartbreaking loop early on, Lena’s on again/off again relationship with Kostas (Michael Rady) is jeopardized with some shocking news. Still reeling from the revelation about the man she assumed was her soul mate, she continues studying at the Rhode Island School of Design where her spirits are lifted when the possibility of a new love literally unfolds before her eyes in the form of Leo (Jesse Williams), a handsome fellow art student who moonlights as a nude model in exchange for studio time.

Of course, this being a family film marketed for tweens and teens, the nudity is implied rather than overt but Bledel charms in an early scene as she stumbles, fidgets, blushes and reminds us of the socially awkward Rory Gilmore we used to know and love. Unfortunately, soon enough the lackluster plotline makes her character just go through the motions until Lena’s problems are wrapped up in a rather forced and ludicrous conclusion in Greece that actually felt like the segment had been added in during the filming stage to bring the gang back for one last hurrah.

While it’s Ferrera who is drawing the most critical praise for her return as Carmen, the insecure and often overlooked bright young woman feeling left out as both her family and friends have proceeded to move on with their lives, Carmen clings to her youth and the pants of The Sisterhood as if they were a baby blanket. After spending an unenthusiastic year at Yale School of Drama working as a tech helping the school’s star diva Julia (Rachel Nichols) make quick changes and exits, she accompanies Julia to a theatre program in Vermont.

Under the direction of pompous Kyle MacLachlan (visibly loving his clichéd role) and catching the eye of British hottie Ian (Tom Wisdom), Carmen discovers her inner actress and finally earns her own chance to shine after being cast in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Despite Ferrera’s talents which are best displayed with her stellar work in independent films like Real Women Have Curves and her award-winning television series, she never fully convinces us this time around in her Shakespearean debut. In this case, I’m wondering if it’s possibly due to Hamri’s direction or Ferrera’s own intuition as “Carmen”. By playing Shakespeare with an incessant exclamation point, it always felt like a forced performance (or the old warning of an actor “acting”), thereby taking away from Carmen’s storyline, which admittedly consisted of a recycled All About Eve meets 42nd Street subplot.

The film’s strongest plot surrounds Blake Lively’s Bridget who returns from playing soccer at Brown University to the still overly quiet, sad home where she and her father (played by the father of the actress, Ernie Lively) struggle to converse, still equally haunted by Bridget’s mother’s suicide. While preparing for an archeological dig in Turkey led by House of Sand and Fog actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, Bridget stumbles upon a box filled with cards and letters from her estranged grandmother Greta (Blythe Danner). Midway through the Turkish adventure, she inevitably makes the decision that her own past is more urgent to dig up and goes to visit her feisty grandmother.

While their scenes are filled with emotional potential, especially with the pitch-perfect casting of Blythe Danner who manages to give Blake Lively more to do than simply pout and sigh like her Gossip Girl character Serena, the effect is overly rushed and too much time is spent trying to juggle the other, less interesting plots. However, in retrospect, the other characters’ arcs may have been put on the front burner since Bridget’s is the only one that doesn’t involve romance and Warner Brothers most likely wanted to ensure the teen viewers had enough chances to swoon at the attractive male stars in Lena, Tibby, and Carmen’s storylines.

In my humble opinion, the best actress of the group is Joan of Arcadia's Amber Tamblyn as the wisecracking, cynical, aspiring filmmaker Tibby (a more likable version of Thora Birch’s Enid from Ghost World) and while she was given an admittedly contrived plotline in the first Sisterhood, it was also one of the film’s most moving storylines. This time around, despite being tossed one Juno-like plot device which Tamblyn plays to masterful comedic effect, she’s wasted here and in some scenes it feels like she’s only set to enter just to deliver a well-written, witty line (for proof, just check out the film’s trailer). Unfortunately, aside from a superb build-up to a conflict that never fully materializes in a way that’s beneficial to the script other than to end up as an obstacle to romantic happiness with her equally hip beau Brian (Leonardo Nam), we get far too much Carmen playing Shakespeare than we’d like.

While fans of the original are sure to enjoy it, the film ends on an unintentionally hilarious note via a ridiculously spontaneous journey to Greece to find the pants that the girls fear have been the only thing keeping them together. But despite Sisterhood 2's many, many flaws and the way characters and stories are just inserted for distraction much like the beadwork, ink, and ornaments on their famous jeans, it’s still quite a welcome sight to see a film that can play to audiences of all ages. Not to mention, the bonus that it’s a feature film which portrays young women as intelligent and thoughtful as opposed to the media-perpetuated cliché they’re simply vacuous beings all just angling for credit cards and trips to the mall.

Admittedly, box-office wise, it’s unfortunate that it’s playing opposite the Summer Olympics; however, given the elevated celebrity of Lively and Ferrera, it’s sure to garner more ticket sales than the original film did. Although, via the advice of my new young acquaintance whom we will probably see reviewing on the world wide web someday, I’d urge prospective audience members to check out the first Sisterhood before they journey to the theatre so they can see how surprisingly good a stereotypical “chick flick” can be.