Don’t let that title fool you: The second entry in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” cinematic trilogy is by no means a darker outing than its predecessor, and the franchise (already set to wrap up with a third feature in 2018) is all the better for it. Whipping up a proper tone for the big screen versions of E.L. James’ wildly popular novels was always going to be the films’ biggest problem, and while director James Foley might not quite nail it, wily injections of humor prove to be an unexpectedly helpful addition to the kinky franchise.
Picking up mere days after the events of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 2015 “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Foley’s film quickly shifts gears away from the doom and gloom of the first film to give audiences something sexier, sillier and a fair bit soapier. After gliding through a series of literally tattered childhood memories that serve to illuminate just why Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is — as he so memorably puts it — “fifty shades of fucked up” and a sad-faced opening credits sequence that shows the sorry state of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) post-breakup, “Darker” starts to have a lot more fun.
Desperate to win back Ana, Christian goes to the usual over-the-top ends to impress her, from giant bouquets of delivered roses to the purchase of an entire set of large-scale portraits shot by Ana’s other obsessive devotee, the ever-maligned Jose (Victor Rasuk, friend-zoned as ever). But what Ana wants is something much more simple and respectable (in BDSM parlance, something “vanilla”), something that may never fully satisfy the more complicated parts of Christian’s sexuality. Yet life without Ana just won’t do, and Christian agrees to “renegotiate terms” to satisfy his lady (no actual business meetings and signed contracts required this time).
Ana’s newfound liberation, frequently punctuated by Christian choosing to pleasure her first (in the world of “Fifty Shades,” oral sex is the most reliable barometer of the state of a relationship), never feels fully realized, thanks to a screenplay dominated by scenes comprised of actual nonsense where whole stretches pass with nothing of substance or believability takes place.
Ana will demand to not be locked up in Christian’s spacious apartment, a kept thing, and mere seconds later, she’ll readily be agreeing to move in. It’s a cycle that repeats almost endlessly throughout the film’s slow-moving first hour. If Christian — or the script — felt at all smarter, it would seem like a nasty trick. At least the sex is actually sexier this time around, more bent towards play, rather than punishment.
Still, Ana does get some of the things she wants most in the world, even if they go against Christian’s very grain. As Christian begins to let Ana in — both physically and emotionally — she learns considerably more about his background, and his particular likes and dislikes. From his messy childhood to a genuinely shocking affection for “The Chronicles of Riddick” (not actually a joke), Ana and the audience both discover shades to Christian the first film never even bothered to hint at.
With both Johnson and Dornan appearing far more comfortable in their roles this second time around, “Darker” drops much of the weirdo pretension that made its predecessor such a humorless slog. There are intentional laughs to be found here, and the soapy shockers that take over during its action-packed third act suit the material in unexpectedly delightful ways. Finally, a “Fifty Shades” film that isn’t afraid of being fun.
But fun only goes so far, particularly in a film that still seems bent on loading up somber twists to remind everyone just how “fucked up” this all is. Despite its looser tone, “Darker” does make room for some clunkier, darker elements. Ana keeps seeing a creepy woman hanging around her home and workplace, and her once-accommodating boss (Eric Johnson, whose haircut carries the bulk of his performance) turns quickly nefarious after she rebuffs his unsettling advances. And while tension should all linger around every edge, “Darker” only goes for the scary stuff when the meandering plot needs to push forward.
Niall Leonard’s screenplay struggles to hold tight to the film’s many subplots, and seemingly important turns are picked up and dropped with stunning irregularity. Even things that seem essential — and Foley loves to make those moments stand out, all the better to drive home that there’s still a whole other film left to watch — fall by the wayside within the space of seconds. Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing is similarly baffling, and cuts between scenes and whole sequences appear with little rhyme or reason (most worrisome is Francis-Bruce’s tendency to cut a sex scene just when things are actually steaming up).
“Fifty Shades Darker” is at its best when leaning towards the light, embracing its unabashedly sillier elements and letting its stars off the chain (or the rope, or the leash, or whatever handsome but foreboding leather-made object can be found in Christian’s Red Room of Pain). Sex is fun! Romance is sweet! And not every slap needs to leave a mark.
“Fifty Shades Darker” hits theaters on Friday, February 10.