Critics have spent years kicking E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” around like a studded leather football, but the first notices for the film version, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, are surprisingly positive. (Reviews were to be held until Wednesday, but evidently someone uttered the embargo’s safe word.) The hokiness of the book hasn’t been extinguished — in this day and age, you can hardly afford to alienate fans of a popular franchise — but James’ easily mocked prose has been replaced by Taylor-Johnson’s (formerly Taylor-Wood’s) assured direction, and if Johnson and Dornan don’t set the screen ablaze, they don’t seem to palpably hate each other, either. Truth be told, all the positive or negative reviews probably won’t mean as much to “Fifty Shades'” box office as one Kim Kardashian tweet, but it’s a relief to see critics steering away from easy snark dealing with the first franchise to be driven by female sexuality.
Reviews of “Fifty Shades of Grey”
Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter
Both on the page and in the glossy, compellingly acted screen adaptation, one of the more perverse aspects of their zeitgeist-harnessing story is the breathless way it melds the erotic kink known as BDSM with female wish-fulfillment fantasy of a decidedly retro slant. Hearts and flowers are barely concealed beneath the pornographic surface, and as with most mainstream love stories, an infatuated but commitment-averse male is in need of rehabilitation. Although the book’s soft-X explicitness has been toned down to a hard R, this is the first studio film in many years to gaze directly at the Medusa of sex — and unlike such male-leer predecessors as “9 1/2 Weeks,” it does so from a woman’s perspective. Aiming to please, the filmmakers submit without hesitation to the bold yet hokey source material, with leads Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson breathing a crucial third dimension into cutout characters.
Elizabeth Weitzman, Daily News
One of the things we’ve learned from James (besides proper paddling protocol) is that we take the pleasure with the pain. Her erotic trilogy is such a massive global phenomenon that any movie version was bound to heat up Valentine’s Day. But let’s be honest: Her writing is almost as famous for its cringeworthy dialogue as its unflinching sex scenes. So credit goes to director Sam Taylor-Johnson and her screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, who’ve stripped the first book of its biggest flaws, while still honoring its essence. And lead Dakota Johnson makes for an ideal heroine, though — as doubters feared — her chemistry with costar Jamie Dornan doesn’t always sizzle.
Sara Stewart, New York Post
Gone are the truly dreadful aspects of the book, and the biggest surprise may be that Ana and Christian have developed senses of humor. Still, the film never pretends to be other than what it really is: soft-core porn for the ladies, diluted with an “R” rating. The massive success of the “Fifty Shades” franchise has made one thing abundantly clear: Women want more sex in their media. They’re not going to get as much of it here as in the novel, but no matter — it’s already quadruple the amount in any other mainstream movie women are likely to see this year, and it’s all aimed squarely at them. Sure, Anastasia’s spanked, blindfolded, tied to various pieces of furniture and smacked with a riding crop, but there are no scenes — outside of the film’s dark final act — in which Christian the sadist is seen as enjoying any of it more than she is.
David Ehrlich, Time Out
A watered-down adaptation that’s embarrassed to be wet, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a sex-positive but hopelessly soft-core erotic drama that fails to be even a fraction as titillating as the E.L. James books that inspired it. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film becomes fascinating for the finesse with which she navigates the prudishness forced upon it. The director is capable of pivoting from romantic comedy to erotic drama at the whack of a flogger, her dexterity allowing the tepid sex scenes to be framed by a surprisingly sensitive story of self-discovery. Substituting heartache for handcuffs, “Fifty Shades” is the rare studio romance in which the characters actually try to understand one another.
Tim Grierson, Screen International
Out of the bedroom, the characters’ chemistry can be brittle — Christian is hiding secret pains from his past that keep him from being emotionally intimate — but the sex scenes reveal a carnal connection between them, with Taylor-Johnson making the scenes arousing without letting them devolve into soft-porn cheesiness. There’s a refreshing matter-of-factness to the sex, despite the kink, that feels nearly revolutionary in comparison to the usually tepid depictions we see from American studio films.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
Lifted from the first of E.L. James’ wildly successful novels, which started as a form of “Twilight” fan fiction, the movie plays strictly by the book — which is hardly a compliment. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson from Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, the considerable talent behind the camera and a modicum of considerable performances yield a few undeniable guilty pleasures, but most viewers will be seeking a safe word to escape this two-hour-plus mess of half-baked excess.
Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson had an impossible mission on her hands to meld the tawdry with the conventional. It’s like trying to mash up the sensibilities of Lars von Trier with Nancy Meyers to create an end product that will be appealing on a mass scale. In trying to please everyone, though, “Fifty Shades of Grey” has stripped away the fun and settled on palatable. There have been perfume commercials with more depth and story arc.
Justin Chang, Variety
In telling the story of a shy young virgin and the broodingly handsome billionaire who invites her into his wonderful world of hanky-spanky, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have brought out a welcome element of cheeky, knowing humor that gradually recedes as the action plunges into darker, kinkier territory. Glossy, well cast, and a consistent hoot until it becomes a serious drag, this neo-“9 1/2 Weeks” is above all a slick exercise in carefully brand-managed titillation — edgier than most grown-up studio fare, but otherwise a fairly mild provocation in this porn-saturated day and age.
Jordan Hoffman, Guardian
The sex scenes in “Fifty Shades of Grey” are numerous, lengthy and frank, but they aren’t smutty. Only occasionally does it dip into “Red Shoe Diaries” territory. By and large, these key scenes really are there to advance the plot, and only the most buttoned-up prude will be scandalised. The ropes, cuffs and collars are all standard issue kink. For real life, perhaps, they are extreme, but for the movies, it’s nothing too weird. If the Red Room full was of enormous vats of raspberry jelly, maybe that could maybe engender some shock. But when things go a bit too far, Ana asserts herself and counters that maybe a man who yearns to hurt women (consensually, always consensually!) ought, perhaps, to look within.
Inkoo Kang, Wrap
Despite the condescending snark and ridicule the books and the movie has received for supposedly introducing S&M to soccer moms, “Fifty Shades” is certainly not the sexually progressive story it could be. Christian’s sexually dominant tendencies are related to his mysterious but tragic past, the implication being that only damaged weirdos are into BDSM. That correlation is not only demeaning but also represents one of the film’s most tonally discordant and melodramatic moments.