Let’s get the obvious out of the way upfront: Fifty Shades Freed is ridiculous. There are enormous vacation houses, private planes, car chases, and a woman with a high-powered job who gets to leave at 5pm and take long weekends (without her laptop). But there’s nothing wrong with a movie being ridiculous. It happens all the time. In fact, when a ridiculous movie is targeted toward men between the ages of 18 and 24, it might get a $100,000,000 budget and a couple of Oscar winners. And honestly, with all of the information we have in 2018, you have everything you need to select the right movie for you, so if Call Me By Your Name was sold out and you decided Fifty Shades Freed was your best alternative, you’re going to have to take all of the responsibility for your experience with this film. So, yeah. Fifty Shades Freed is ridiculous. The real question is, “Is it the good kind of ridiculous?” And the answer is, “Well, it could be worse.”
For those not keeping track at home, Fifty Shades Freed is the latest and last installment of the film trilogy that started with Fifty Shades of Grey. The whole series was based on the erotic romance series by the same name, which began as Twilight fan fiction and follows the “BDSM becomes something more” relationship of innocent, recent-college grad Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and fucked-up billionaire with a proclivity for kink Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). The Fifty Shades series culminates with Freed, the story of their wedding, honeymoon, home-purchasing, and then bunch of stuff with stalking related to Ana’s former boss. Honestly, I could tell you way more about this movie’s plot or nothing more about this movie’s plot, and you’d still probably be slightly confused but able to keep up, so let’s just move on.
Like most people who read and write about romantic fiction, I was pretty wary of this movie. The Fifty Shades series is one of the most familiar to non-romance readers, but those who read the genre regularly debate whether E.L James’ book series has done more harm than good for the reputation of romance novels. There are far better examples of erotic romance and BDSM romance out there, and this book series could have used a hell of a lot more editing. Or even some editing. But Fifty Shades caught fire, so this is what we get on the big screen, and maybe there’s a chance to tell a better story through film.
The problem is that we have to trust a bunch of dudes to do that, given that this film, which is geared more toward a female audience than maybe anything else in 2018, has all men at the helm. Sure, original novel-writer E.L. James is a woman, but director James Foley is a man, screenplay-writer Niall Leonard is a man, cinematographer John Schwartzman is a man, the three producers who aren’t E.L. James are men… you get the idea. It’s like how all of the movies in the Vin Diesel xXx series keep getting written and directed by women. Just kidding. That’s obviously a thing that has never happened.
And as it turns out, Fifty Shades Freed could have been worse. Due in large part to Johnson’s performance, Ana is interesting and somewhat independent: she calls Christian out on his bullshit and stands up for herself, she gets to navigate the mean streets of Seattle during a car chase, and she struggles with the decision of whether or not to change her name for solidly one-and-a-half scenes. She even delivers some jokes in a couple of the movie’s genuinely funny moments.
What makes Fifty Shades Freed problematic is what the story suggests about sex, love, and relationships. The key issue with this movie is with the sex, but not because it’s too kinky or not kinky enough. The issue here is that the kink is one-sided. Christian and Ana are obviously hot for each other, but any time the couple is in Christian’s “red room of pain,” it feels very much like Ana is there for him and not with him. A few times, she seems genuinely reluctant or hesitant to engage in this kind of dominant/submissive sexual relationship, but she does it because she knows he likes it. He’s a real mess, and it’s too much trouble to do anything else. Near the end of the film, we see a montage of highlights of their relationship through her eyes, and they’re all romantic – dancing, kissing in the rain, smiling while fully clothed – but none are sexual. For a fictional relationship so associated with and grounded in mutually satisfying sex, it’s frustrating that the film suggests that sex and romance are mutually exclusive, and further, that much of the nature of their sex life is Ana’s concession to Christian’s desires.
Fifty Shades Freed lacks the kind of nuance, particularly related to Ana and Christian’s romantic and sexual relationship, that a more inclusive production team might have brought to the story. But as the landscape of ridiculous fantasy films goes, I’m fine counterbalancing some of Vin Diesel’s heli-skiing with Dakota Johnson wearing gorgeous dresses and drinking champagne in Aspen. It’s 2108, after all. Lean in.