I’ll take an earnest shot at reviewing cultural phenom and near-movie Fifty Shades of Grey, but my gut reaction may be best summed up by the single word screamed anonymously in the theater at the press screening I attended when the final scene cut to black and the credits began to roll:
Because for all its talk about erotic journeys and unleashed inhibitions, “Mommy Porn” juggernaut Grey actually has more in common with garden-variety bad sex – the minute things start to get interesting, it’s over.
When all is said and done, the highly-buzzed film adaptation of the smash erotic novel (which I have not read) is a run-of-the-mill romance awkwardly brandishing a riding crop. Like most movie romances, it’s packed to bursting with canned luxury, loaded glances, “embarrassing” moments engineered to elicit unearned empathy, and characters who repeatedly say one thing while doing the exact opposite. The nearly nonexistent plot: virginal girl meets rich boy; rich boy invites virginal girl to be his live-in sex slave; virginal girl tries to “cure” boy of his need to dominate, which is of course rooted in childhood trauma and abuse. For a movie that traffics in the promise of sexual adventure, that’s a disappointingly conservative narrative.
Despite what the ominous ads – all whispery Beyonce and silk blindfolds – might want us to believe, the film is adorably vanilla. There are no edgy kicks to be had here – you can almost smell the Crabtree and Evelyn potpourri every time Christian cracks open the door of his playroom. (Inside, there are studded paddles on the rack, but they’re passed over in favor of a naughty peacock feather.) Folks expecting the lurid, greasy thrills of 9 1/2 Weeks or Basic Instinct will surely be disappointed by what could for the most part be an extended episode of Masters of Sex. While on the one hand it’s nice to see a consensual dominant/submissive arrangement be portrayed as absolutely nothing to be afraid of, it doesn’t in and of itself make for thrilling cinema. Nor is the film the peephole into the world of BDSM that the curious might hope for it to be. I intended to keep a list of things I learned from the film, but all I came up with by the end was, “One of Jamie Dornan’s eyes is bigger than the other.”
Since the kink – the movie’s primary selling point – is a yawn, the heavy lifting is left to be done by a compelling story, of which there is none. While screenwriter Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson have admirably managed to squeeze a few drops of blood out of what is widely held to be a wretchedly-written turnip, there’s only so much they could do with the material. At its heart, this is a romance between two people who don’t belong together, because they don’t want the same things. Asking either one of them to change is unfair and fundamentally unromantic – which would actually be fine with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who adamantly insists “I don’t do romance” about 100 times while whizzing Ana (Dakota Johnson) around in helicopters and gliders, buying her amazing clothes, and playing the piano for her half-naked in the middle of the night. What exactly is going on here? Is he simply a terrible dominant? Or is he not a dominant at all – just a lousy and potentially abusive boyfriend – and the BDSM set dressing was all a sales gimmick? I’m not a member of the fetish community and won’t speak for them, but I can’t imagine that they are happy being backhanded through association with this ridiculous story and whatever the hell it’s trying to say about men and women. (Or maybe they are perfectly happy being backhanded, and that’s their choice.)
Fortunately, the game lead actors do everything that they can to make this setup work – and for a few minutes here and there, they pull it off. As Ana (short for Anastasia Steele, because how could it not be), Johnson is asked to bite her lower lip so much that she probably consumed half of her weight in Chapstick during filming, but her tentative navigation of her new boyfriend’s quirks is believable and at times disarmingly funny. (The film is much funnier than expected – at times even deliberately so.) Dornan – who seems to be on a mission to have “abdominal obliques” recognized as a legitimate acting choice – is given very little to work with as offish playboy Christian Grey, but he at least manages to make the character come across as the kind of stalker you’d want to take home to mom. Both actors are required to undress exactly enough times to make it become boring to watch, despite the fact that they are both very pretty.
The one scene of the film that totally works is when Ana insists on a “business meeting” to negotiate the terms of Christian’s dom/sub contract. (Yes, it’s an actual contract, and the question of whether or not Ana will sign is a feature-length plot point.) The sight of two adults sitting in a conference room negotiating graphic sexual acts (actual line: “What’s a butt plug?”) is both refreshingly frank and bordering on parody. Because there’s already a word for a legally binding relationship wherein two parties struggle to maintain their identities and a balance of power while sharing a living space: it’s called marriage, and it’s about as sexy as a trip to City Hall.
Perhaps had the film shown Ana discovering something about herself (other than that she likes free computers and cars more than she expected), the back-and-forth about the terms of their arrangement would be more compelling. But as it is, she decides early on that being a submissive isn’t for her, and even though – with some coaxing – she tries a few things, she really never warms up to it. Hey – gave it the old college try, not her thing. (Her thing, by the way, is getting blackout drunk at college bars and reading Henry James while drowning in a cardigan.) Again, this film literally does not have an ending, so I can only guess where it’s all leading – but if the ultimate point really is to “fix” Christian, that’s not only awfully cliched, but also disrespectful people who actually live a BDSM lifestyle (rather than just mimic it in order to sell soundtracks and Fifty Shades branded sex toys to bachelorettes).
When the movie eventually stops as though it were growing as tired of watching the same exchange (“Sign the contract!” “I don’t know if I like the contract!” “Here’s an iPad!”) as the audience is, you might wonder if it was one of those Hobbit situations where they split the book into two movies. But no, that’s just apparently what the filmmakers had to work with. It’s a shame, because it feels like this is a huge missed opportunity. In a time when sex-positive stories like this are flourishing on television but almost entirely absent from mainstream movies, a sexy blockbuster could have blown the lid off of some major taboos. As it is, it’s a handsome but flaccid stab at kinky romance.