'Fifty Shades of Grey'
I have to admit to mildly looking forward to the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ movie. Not because I thought it would be good, mind you. Just because it looked like the kind of bad movie that could be special – a hysterical collision of perversion with mom-friendly Walmart romance that could transcend to new heights of absurdity. Unfortunately, my hopes were too high. Sure, the movie is bad, but not fun-bad. Just bad-bad. Sigh… Never get your hopes up.
For those of you who aren’t a teenage girl or the lonely aunt of a teenage girl, a plot summary is probably in order. Dakota Johnson (Daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson) stars as Anastasia Steele, a mousy college student who knows nothing of love, just the concept of romance fed to her through literature. One day, she agrees to interview successful businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her school paper and just can’t believe how rich and powerful and handsome and dreamy he is. Even better, Christian is inexplicably taken with the girl. A courtship occurs involving a variety of expensive gifts and longing glances. Then things get down to business and Christian shows Ana his playroom of whips and chains and other BDSM gear. She’s freaked out, but intrigued. The relationship continues and things get super steamy and illicit in a very safe way for delicate viewers who like the concept of alternative sexuality, but won’t watch anything icky or different. He teaches her about that old pain/pleasure chestnut, and in the process maybe, just maybe, she’ll teach him how to love. Yech!
So yeah, even if you’ve never bothered to skim through a plot summary of this obscenely popular book series turned film, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect. The sexy sexiness is there, but limited to the usual soft lighting silliness common to any Hollywood movie that falls under a subgenre involving the word “erotic” somewhere in the classification. There are of course expensive accessories involved, but again nothing truly out-there – certainly nothing that hasn’t already made it into a David Cronenberg movie, just without all the subtext, boundary pushing, or discomfort. Essentially, this is a bondage epic for an audience weaned on the low expectations of Nicholas Sparks adaptations. It’s cornball fluff with a little sex deviance tossed in to titillate viewers who never figured out how to do a Google image search.
Admittedly, there’s something nice about a mainstream movie embracing any representation of sexuality beyond shirtless, rain-drenched make-out sessions between two characters you know are totally going to wait until marriage. However, that does not in and of itself make a good movie. By all accounts, E.L. James’ source novels serve up this same silliness in far more graphic, corny and misrepresentative ways. The movie has indeed been softened and is probably less embarrassing to consume. However, at least the crap in the book was sincere.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson (‘Nowhere Boy’) is probably more intelligent than the material to a fault. In the early rags-to-princess wish fulfillment nonsense, she’s clearly attempting to wink at the audience for camp value, but the results are more awkward than clever. A streak of sneaky comedy also arrives in all early discussions of BDSM, which was wise yet probably undermines any actual interest someone involved in that lifestyle might have in this movie.
Taylor-Johnson’s best move was to slightly reframe things so that the woman is actually in control of this sadomasochistic relationship. As a result, Dakota Johnson actually delivers a fairly nuanced performance better than the movie deserves. The trouble is that the decent performance and message aren’t worth sitting through the dreary swill containing them, nor will viewers who might fall for this nonsense appreciate those subtleties.
Even with everything else that goes wrong in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, nothing compares to the embarrassing miscasting of Jamie Dornan. It’s as if Dornan decided that blank line readings would come off as mysteriously evocative if he committed to injecting approximately no emotion to the entire production. He’s basically a prop for all the collective fantasies of E.L. James and her fans to be projected onto, without anything resembling a performance to get in the way. Perhaps it’s not all the actor’s fault, given that the character is so far removed from any semblance of reality or human psychology that playing him was a lost cause from the start. This is, after all, a project that began as ‘Twilight’ fan fiction, so nobody should expect any sort of interesting writing or characters or ideas.
Taylor-Johnson and Dakota Johnson admirably attempt to make the film more complicated than those embarrassing origins. While that’s appreciated, their efforts likely made things worse in an odd way. This was always going to be a pretty horrible movie, but at least that horribleness had a chance at being amusing through purity of crap. Unfortunately, two people embarrassed themselves trying to transcend that crap, so what we’re left with is a movie that’s just painfully dull to watch.