Fifty Shades of Grey Review: Just Watch Porn Instead

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E.L. James’ sensationally erotic best-seller has been adapted for the screen into a bland, boring misfire, with several moments of unintentional hilarity.

When going to see a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s important to have an open mind…and perhaps a few cocktails beforehand.

Countless debates have been waged over the merits of a story that sees a woman completely submit herself to the wills of her kinky new boyfriend. Is this an anti-feminist tale that equates sex to a transaction, or is it subversively empowering in its messages of a female sexual awakening?

Whatever your opinion may be, an open mind is mainly needed to suspend your disbelief. This story is pretty much Beauty and the Beast on steroids. A virginal young woman falls in love with a wealthy and tortured young man in the hopes of changing him. There’s no sense of realism, so you might as well just enjoy the ride.

The cocktails are needed because the ride is nowhere near as fun as you’d expect.

The film opens on Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a student at a college where everyone looks 27. When her journalism major roommate falls ill, she takes her place on an assignment to interview tech billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), resulting in a chance encounter that changes her life forever.

Christian is immediately taken with her, and begins pursuing a relationship. I’m supposed to use that term loosely, because Christian “doesn’t do romance,”—even though he sends her a first edition copy of her favorite book—and has tastes that are “very singular.”

Anastasia, or Ana, as she’s referred to for most of the film, quickly discovers her new lover’s secret fetish. He likes to be dominant in the bedroom, and he wants her to be his submissive. He has a red room filled with whips, chains, handcuffs, and whatever else you could think of, and he can’t wait to try them all out on her…if she’ll let him. What follows is an exploration of sorts, as Ana dips her toes into this strange new world.

By the time the film was halfway through, I already had several questions, none of which were answered by the time the credits rolled. Why does no one think it’s creepy that Christian tracks Ana’s location on her cell phone? Why is he counting the number of drinks she has, and yet always showing up with a bottle of white wine? Why were Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden and pop singer Rita Ora cast as Christian’s mother and sister respectively, only to show up for about five minutes of screen time? Why does Ana still use a flip phone in the year 2015 (this one was especially pestering)? Again, you’ll really need to suspend your disbelief before walking into the theater.

The real problem of the film lies in a lack of excitement. Christian’s Red Room is so polished and organized that it looks like it could be featured in a coverspread in Architectural Digest. The sex scenes, though tastefully shot, are full of quick cuts and fade-outs. Nothing is ever shown for too long, and what is shown is very PG-13. Seriously. No amount of slow-mo Beyoncé songs can hide the fact that the novel’s torrid kinkiness has been sanded down into something that France has deemed appropriate for 12-year-olds. I’m not saying that sex was the main selling point for this movie, but sex was the main selling point for this movie, so what gives?

Then there’s the issue of Christian himself. Aside from the fact that everyone continually ignores his serial killer-esque tendencies, he’s just not that charismatic of a character. I blame this partially on the writing, but mainly on Dornan’s flaccid performance (yes, that pun was intended). Christian may have fifty shades to his complex personality, but Dornan only has about two, and any sexual magnetism he tries to project fails to register onscreen. If the film’s sequels run into budgetary constraints, they should just replace him with a brick wall. I doubt anyone will notice.

Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t a good movie, but, truthfully, it could’ve been a lot worse. There are a few things that save it from totally crashing and burning. Johnson’s performance as Ana is captivating. The actress displays a surprising knack for comedic timing, and a wit that makes her character more interesting than a typical ingenue.

There’s one scene that hints at a bit of self-referentiality. Ana meets with Christian in a dimly lit boardroom to discuss the terms of his contract. The tone is serious, but the dialogue, and Johnson, are not, and for a moment you get the sense that the film is winking at you, acknowledging the ridiculousness of its premise. Alas, this feeling only lasts for a brief moment.

Then, of course, there are the moments of unintentional humor scattered throughout. The upside to Dornan’s stone-like delivery is that it makes his lines—penned by screenwriter Kelly Marcel—all the more hilarious. After finishing his contract negotiations with Ana, Christian announces, “I’d like to f*ck you into next week,” with all the sternness of a politician making a statement on C-Span. Later, during sex, heavy music plays while Ana’s naked body writhes in her bondage gear. Suddenly, a peacock feather comes into play. I’m embarrassed at how loudly I laughed.

Unfortunately, Fifty Shades of Grey never reaches so-bad-it’s-good levels of camp either. The ending is, predictably, a cliffhanger, as is the case with movie adaptations that have pre-planned sequels. The final moments are so stark, however, that it’s almost a surprise when the credits roll.

James reportedly fought with director Sam Taylor-Johnson to keep this ending intact, and I really can’t understand why. You only get one chance to hook viewers—especially those unfamiliar with the source material—into a film franchise, and Fifty Shades pretty much blew it. Grade: C-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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