Fifty Shades Darker (2017) / Romance-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language
Running Time: 118 min.

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk
Director: James Foley
Screenplay: Niall Leonard (based on the novel by E.L. James)

Review published February 12, 2017

In this follow-up to the wildly popular kinky romance drama Fifty Shades of Grey, we find perpetually blushing publishing-house editorial assistant Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, A Bigger Splash) making it through life without the help or attention of controlling Seattle-based mega-billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan, Marie Antoinette), mostly due to the fact that he couldn't open himself up to her much beyond his taste for sado-masochistic sexual acts.  While Grey tries to move on, he can't 'quit' Ana, forging is way back into her life romantically (on condition that their relationship stay 'vanilla'), as well as in an attempt to take over ownership of the company that employs her. 

The title Fifty Shades Darker might lead you to assume that this entry will go far beyond the relatively tame kink-play we witnessed in the first film. It doesn't, staying mostly in the realm of racy rather than engage in any kind of sexual activity that might be considered truly scandalous to witness in a wide-release motion picture.  In fact, given they are apart for most of the first quarter of the film, and then Ana continues her moratorium on any form of painful or spicy sex, the story stays relatively chaste beyond a couple of barely R-rated scenes of sculpted, undulating bodies (oddly, Christian removes his pants no further than halfway down his derriere for most of his sexual jaunts).

Most of the story involves Anastasia repeatedly being taken advantage of by those around her because she's too shy.  Her photographer friend Jose (Rasuk, Godzilla) posts large photographs of her in his gallery exhibition stating that he didn't ask for permission because she'd have said no.  Her supervisor at the publishing house (Eric Johnson, "The Knick") persistently manipulates her into having to do things like meet up for drinks after work, or come with him on business trips.  Christian himself showers her with money, gifts, and pulls strings to make sure he stays in the picture by taking ownership of the things that define her.  She protests, but her voiced desires seem to fall on deaf ears, especially when she ends up submitting to just about every power play.  To think, the "great sacrifice" that Christian Grey has to make is to just love Anastasia in a normal fashion until she is comfortable with exploring more -- so sad!

Despite being a very vacuous film altogether, there are a few positive things about Fifty Shades Darker that keep it from the proverbial movie abyss.  One is the continued nuanced performance by Dakota Johnson, who says so much with her eyes and mannerisms, even when her character is barely written to be much of anyone beyond a love interest who is resistant to trying new things without being forcefully persuaded to do so.  I'll also give kudos to Jamie Dornan for showing a little more charisma this time out, even though I do feel he is woefully miscast in a role that requires someone with much more perceptible rugged-yet-chic mystique than a brooding underwear model. The cinematography is sleek and lush, fully capturing the allure of the decadent lifestyle of the filthy rich and their extravagances.  And the music-video montages full of sexy pop/R&B numbers of the sex scenes does go a long way to engage far more than the feeble amount of frolicking in lingerie, hints of nudity, and tame bouts of bondage than we're allotted on the screen.

But the good is far outweighed by the terrible writing and unconvincing storytelling, with the adaptation from TV-vet Niall Leonard ("Wild at Heart", "Monarch of the Glen") not able to pave much over his real-life wife E.L. James' novel to make it palatable for those not able to relish the inherent trashiness.  Silly and manufactured drama is persistently injected, including Christian's jealous exes, spiteful potential paramours, helicopter crashes, and a number of allusions to Christian's physical and emotional abuse in his past, and the presumption that his interests in BDSM and women who look a certain way are a means to resolve this childhood trauma. 

Veteran director James Foley (Perfect Stranger, The Chamber) takes over the duties from Sam Taylor-Johnson and keeps the film moving along in the way one might expect, though the two-hour length is excessive for a story this vacuous, even with the obligatory coital interludes, including subplots that aren't very interesting, including a damaged ex-sub (Heathcoate, The Neon Demon) in Christian's former harem who can't seem to let go, and the cougar who introduced Christian to the BDSM world, aka "Mrs. Robinson" (Basinger, The Nice Guys) , who disapproves of Ana's continued romantic involvement with her former pupil in the pleasure of pain.

It should come as no surprise when I tell you that the Fifty Shades films are terrible, borne from a series of books that even the most casual of readers wince at in terms of how poorly they are written, despite ravenously partaking of them.  I think a good percentage of the audience will still enjoy the movie primarily because of its inherent trashiness, like a well-shot and scored soap opera, enough to return for the final entry in the trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed, which gets a mid-credits teaser.  Alas, for everyone else, it's interminably dull, only serving to entertain merely by laughing ironically at its insipidness, watching two life-size dolls fornicate, then feel anguished over it, rinse and repeat.

 Qwipster's rating:

2017 Vince Leo