Will-they-or-won’t-they dinner date romance, S&M-lite trysts, and clumsy comedy mix awkwardly in Universal’s “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” an insipid, unsexy, and unfortunately compliant adaptation of E.L. James‘ appallingly-poor best-selling novel. This decidedly tame, mainstream, multiplex-friendly look at kink, bondage, and sadomasochistic relationships takes absolutely no risks sexually or otherwise, and its would-be titillating inquiries into practices involving dominance, submission, and eroticism are facile at best.
Not unlike something out of a schmaltzy Danielle Steele novel with an airbrushed Fabio on the cover — only veiled in superficial notes of kinky and dangerous dark pleasures that are actually quite docile — “Fifty Shades Of Grey” centers on the unlikely relationship between naïve and hopelessly romantic college senior Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and complicated, control-freak billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). And like most jejune fantasy romance novels, it is rooted in shallow daydream emptiness and absolutely nothing resembling average self-respecting human behavior.
If “Fifty Shades Of Grey” has a strong suit (spoiler, it doesn’t) plotting is not it, and the story begins with the most laughable of openings that sets the tone for the rest of the movie, suspension of disbelief be damned. We’re supposed to believe that a journalism major (Eloise Mumford) would casually send her roommate Anastasia to interview Seattle’s most influential entrepreneur armed with zero interviewing experience and a handful of jotted-down questions because she’s ill. Then we’re supposed to swallow how their painfully awkward and unintentionally funny meet cute in Christian’s office is supposed to be the point-of-attack moment where both their hearts are pierced by cupid’s arrow of intrigue — despite the fact that the impatient Christian seems two seconds away from opening up a trap door beneath the inept Anastasia, leading straight into a pit of crocodiles. Ah, but her incompetence is endearing. In reality, their connection is utterly uninspired, and it’s amazing how little care is put into this critical scene and just how brutally unconvincing it is (the close-ups that are supposed to signify “the moment” might have been better served with SnapChat hearts and arrows drawn around their heads, it’s so bloody vacant).
Filmed with curiously uninvolving flatness, director Sam Taylor-Johnson (“Nowhere Boy”) has the unenviable task of taking sophomoric, sub-par material — likely studio committee-d to death — and trying to make it sexy and erotic with two perfectly mismatched actors. Their chemistry is nonexistent and we’ve all seen high school science experiments yield more sparks than the pairing of Dornan and Johnson, both of whom appear as if they’d like to be anywhere else. Thus, the movie constantly strains itself to create heat, especially in the bloodless sex scenes, mostly by profusely applying each sequence with would-be seductive contemporary music (Beyonce, Sia, Ellie Goulding, The Weeknd) as a desperate lubricant to produce some kind of eroticism.
What’s fascinating about ‘Fifty Shades’ is how it blindly assumes the audience will follow anything written in the book and never attempts to course-correct in going from the page to the screen. This is most damaging in attempting to establish that quixotic Anastasia is attracted to the cold, calculating, and unromantic Christian. Orbiting a charisma free-zone, and as played by Jamie Dornan full of uncomfortable, why-am-I-here grimaces, Christian is a vacuously hot guy worth a hook up and nothing more. Perhaps it’s fitting just how callow and artless ‘Fifty Shades’ is given that its lead female character is a wallflower virgin who apparently hasn’t experienced anything significant in life. There’s no other reasonable explanation for why she tolerates Grey and any of his ridiculous control-freak overtures that are completely business-like, and should be a complete turn-off.
The movie does nothing to placate these concerns other than to suggest Anastasia is simply enamored by Christian’s mysteriousness and chiseled good looks despite warning signs that suggest running in the opposite direction of this sociopath. Even more astonishing is the faith the audience is supposed to place in Anastasia’s near-offensive lack of self-respect. Christian is creepy, controlling, and stalker-ish, and the movie absurdly floats the notion that she loves him despite the fact the sharply-dressed executive has given her nothing aside from fancy, expensive gifts and airborne rides over the alluring city skyline. Oh, how “Fifty Shades Of Grey” depends on dreamy aerial trips in lieu of something more substantive. Taylor-Johnson’s movie frequently uses plane and helicopter rides (plied with dreamy music of course) as a shortcut to feelings of intoxicating exhilaration, probably because no moment of interaction between the two leads is genuinely stimulating. The manufactured effect is, of course, completely hollow and tedious.
The movie’s liberal use of comedy is also mesmerizing in a train-wreck sort of way. “Fifty Shades Of Grey” is self-aware and still fails miserably, never quite campy or arch enough to be enjoyable. Kelly Marcel’s screenplay attempts to soften the blow of its terrible dialogue (“I’m going to fuck you into next week,” is said with a straight face) and absurd scenarios with would-be cognizant humor. But despite its best attempts, you never laugh with “Fifty Shades Of Grey.” The humor is either utterly cornball or elicits scornful snickers.
Following the book to the letter, “Fifty Shades Of Grey” spends an inordinate amount of time devoted to things that are ridiculously banal and unsexy: the sex contract that Christian draws up for the would-be subservient Anastasia and the duo haggling over what buttplugs and anal fisting dos and don’ts she’ll allow (unsurprisingly, the most outrageous thing she agrees to is a little spanking). Christian’s form of courting is a distant transaction and an audience is supposed to believe that despite Anastasia’s evident reticence, she’s willing to give it a shot for this guy.
Salman Rushdie once famously said that ‘Fifty Shades’ the novel is so abysmal that it “made ‘Twilight’ look like ‘War and Peace,’” and this really isn’t an inaccurate assessment. E.L. James’ e-book began as “Twilight” fan fiction, and it makes perfect sense as both books share pedestrian Cinderella archetypes and the emotional maturity of a high school cheerleading squad. Plus Johnson’s method of emoting sensuality, excitement, or otherwise, consists almost entirely of bottom-lip biting.
Co-starring Luke Grimes, Rita Ora, Victor Rasuk, Max Martini, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, and Dylan Neal, every character is basically a one-note sketch appearing in the movie more out of novel obligation than for any substantive reason. If any one actor stands out, it’s Eloise Mumford as Anastasia’s chipper roommate, who earns the distinction of transforming each scene into something out of a bad CW sitcom.
If there’s a cogent reason why the “Fifty Shades Of Grey” books have captured the imagination of millions of readers, the movie does nothing to dispel the notion that it’s simply cheap and colorless titillation. Leaden to the hilt, “Fifty Shades Of Grey” concludes with an insulting cliffhanger that will only service and tease those who have read the book (it elicited outraged laughter at my screening). Anyone else looking for a self-contained movie that works on its own merits and narrative will be hopelessly stymied.
To that end, ‘Fifty Shades’ can barely articulate what it’s really about, and you’ll have to tune into further sequels to find out. What the movie indistinctly suggests is the concept of subverting control, the idea of the submissive turning the tables on the dominant through, what else, love. And while this might seem more textured than the boy-meets-girl vapidity of the movie, it’s really just another unfortunate version of the girl who believes she can change the complex man she doesn’t actually connect with into someone she can love.
Universal’s Valentine’s Day effort is admittedly at least somewhat ironically enjoyable when you’re laughing at it, with its horribly leaden dialogue (“I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” Grey morosely says while staring out a window), its deer-in-headlights performances, and its clumsy, juvenile plotting. But its final humorless 15 minutes feel like an unbearable eternity and punishment that’s far more excruciating for the audience than anything Christian can mete out to Anastasia. Ultimately, “Fifty Shades Of Grey” is embarrassing and depressing, especially when considering the picture as a reflection of the quality of mainstream modern romance today. [F]