Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language
Running Time: 125 min.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Screenplay: Kelly Marcel (Based on the novel by E.L. White)
Review published February 17, 2015
Fifty Shades of Grey adapts E.L. White's massively popular book, only truly notably significant because it brought about BDSM subject matter into the mainstream. With everything depicted already having been filmed in pornography that's not only widely available on the internet, but which doesn't feature two actors faking it, one might think that the only draw to the movie version is only because of the phenomenon aspect of it, with large groups of predominantly female moviegoers choosing to see it either out of curiosity or just for a fun ladies night, since its easier and cheaper than going to a male strip club revue.
Anastasia Steele (Johnson, Need for Speed) fills in for a journalist roommate to grab an interview with powerful billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey (Dornan, Marie Antoinette). The two form a magnetic attraction instantly, resulting in Christian's single-minded pursuit of the young college student, though her lack of experience makes him question whether it's right to bring her in to the only male-female relationship he knows: being the dom to her sub. Ana's interest is piqued, and goes along with it, slowly, hoping that he will also come around to the kind of traditional romance she is really wanting from him. Both end up going outside of their comfort zone, but finding a true middle ground proves to be a challenge.
I've not read the book, but judging the film version as its own entity, it's a fairly dull flick that might only seem racy for people who've led extremely repressed and sheltered lives. Pretty much every adult has heard of S&M, and knows it involves spanking, whips, bondage, and submission, so it delivers exactly what's expected. For a property that fosters the notion that sex should really push boundaries, it's a surprisingly conservative movie in this regard, as it never extends beyond blindfolds and mild punishments as part of its kink factor.
What I have heard about the book is that the writing is substandard, which does handcuff (no joke intended there) the screenplay adaptation by Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) quite a bit. Unable to deviate from the source material much due to the rabid fan base, the best she could do is try to minimize the bad dialogue and forced situations without injecting so much that it deviates too much. It also doesn't help that the main conflict within the film is whether or not Ana will sign Christian's contract and become his true submissive both in word and in deed, as it denies the film a proper climax (again, no joke intended, but given that no on-screen orgasms are ever shown, pretty much every climax is denied).
The movie purports to be some sort of romance, but I think it's definitely much more about infatuation and obsession than genuine feelings of love. Anastasia merely appeals to Christian's need to assert dominion, to corrupt the innocence of a virgin. Her shyness and perpetual coquettish lip-biting is something to conquest over, to try to uncap that which has a metaphoric chastity belt.
And what does Ana see in Christian? It's never made clear. He's handsome and has lots of money; he's a walking-talking kink doll, with all of the pieces of the puzzle except for the capability to love, laugh, or act remotely human. While the material and sexual objects may be enough for some women, at least in fantasy, we never get the idea that Ana is holding out for a millionaire to sweep her off her feet. When asked what Ana will get if she signs the contract, Christian merely replies, "Me." It's a disingenuous assertion, as Christian is shown as, at best, an enigma, and, at worst, an emotionally repressed person who is exceedingly reluctant to share genuine feelings about himself, other than his desire to possess Ana.
Shades of a troubled psyche and checkered past betray the BDSM storyline by suggesting that interest in bondage play is something that comes from a fractured childhood of some sort. It's damaged people creating more damaged people, or at least perpetuating it. His need for Ana is to fulfill a lifetime of hurt and neglect; he wants to possess a permanence he was never afforded by keeping something that is contractually obligated to never leave him, or to hurt him in return. It's this angle where the true interesting material in the story lies, but it's all buried under glossy escapist interludes like flying in a helicopter or glider, or in scenes in which the two nearly go into orgasmic convulsions upon the merest touch of one another. Psychological and philosophical context is left to us to work out on our own.
Chemistry within the film between Ana and Christian doesn't exist, partially because of the poor writing, and partially because Christian is so very much an ideal of a dominant that he ceases to be a real person. He's a blend of pleasure-bot and Bruce Wayne, complete with traumatic backstory to pin every single motivating factor on. One never gets the notion that, when he walks out of the room, he continues to exist. The occasional text message is a reminder that he's there, but it only further exemplifies his singular purpose, which is to draw out Anastasia's sexually inexperienced side to open up. Dakota Johnson feels like she's giving a genuine performance, but without a counterpart to bounce emotions off of, or even occasional repartee, this sex flick feels more like mutual masturbation, with both sex partners getting off themselves by using the other as an object to match up with the fantasies they have in their minds.
But the real nail in the coffin of this movie's worth as a piece of cinema rather than a subject for a sexual politics discussion is that it is consummately boring. The characters are underwritten, their dialogue scant and without flavor, and the sex itself lacks genuine sizzle, which, in a film that is inherently built upon titillating the audience, it absolutely unforgivable. The only entertainment value for most audiences will be to laugh at its obviousness, such as as a scene in which Christian visits the hardware store where Ana is employed and asks for cable ties, tape and rope -- the ham-fisted foreshadowing can't help but elicit giggles at its expense. It's followed by a scene of equally obvious phallic foreshadowing as Ana puts one of Christian Grey's pencils mindlessly to her lips.
Feeling more like a product that isn't directed so much as assembled, Fifty Shades if Grey is especially frustrating in that it tries to assert that Grey's tastes are truly dangerous, especially in one scene in which he appears to want to take out his aggressions after a particularly bad day on Ana, even asking her if she remembers the safe words before beginning, and then proceeds with an act that doesn't hurt so much as annoy, both Ana and us, for the build-up and disgust in his character's motivation. I say, if you really want to torture the poor gal, strap her down with cable ties and rope, then force her to try to endure this dreadfully dull and pointless "phenomenon" that is viewed more as a girls-night excuse than a genuine film. If only they had safe words for theater audiences...
©2015 Vince Leo