All words: Alan Pyke
With its synthetic origins, simplistic notions of romance, and high-pressure low-value treatment of sex, Valentine’s Day is the perfect holiday for Fifty Shades of Grey to hit theaters nationwide.
Perhaps the kindest thing to say for the movie is that for at least two medium-length stretches, it manages not to be a trainwreck. When Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) insists on a formal business meeting to hash out the fine print of the kinky contract that billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) proposed after being smitten enough with her to reveal his dominant/sadistic proclivities, the movie finds its high point. The two sit at opposite ends of a long conference table, lit dimly from the side in an orange haze that catches and refracts in their wine glasses, and playfully trade legalistic barbs tipped with words like “fisting” and “genital clamps.” Johnson gives Anastasia a wry, coquettish wit, and Dornan very nearly keeps up, and the overall effect of the brief sequence is something very akin to romantic chemistry.
It is the strongest scene in the movie. It has little company in that category. And when your is movie built on the promise of titillation, provocation, and heretofore uncharted sexual wilds, it’s probably bad to have your sex scenes trumped by the sexless one in a boardroom.
The scene’s visual texture, and the blase but faintly stylish filmmaking that pervades Fifty Shades, touch on the erotic thrillers of Brian de Palma and Paul Verhoeven. But only barely, and the touch doesn’t stick: the host rejects the graft. It’s hard to blame this on director Sam Taylor-Johnson or her production team. The movie fails to live up to their buoyant editing and precise but conventional cinematography, mostly because of ghastly writing that gets all the wrong laughs at all the wrong times. It’s illegal to stack cliches that high in most states, but the screenplay here is tottering under the weight of them all.
Since they deal with with lines more suited to a high school play written by a student in the company, it’s tempting to be gentle on Dornan and Johnson. But Johnson needs no gentleness, doing perfectly solid work as the playful, tenacious, and mostly pliable Steele. Her smirking delivery and excellent timing are just enough to make you think the movie might know how cringingly funny its writing is (however unlikely that self-awareness may be).
Next to Dornan’s stilted, barely-there performance, her work looks even better. The chilling magnetism that the Irishman brings to his character on Netflix’s The Fall is completely absent here, replaced by boredom and a mostly painful attempt at sounding American. The casting directors wagered on the power of Dornan’s sharp jaw and bare torso (an absurd collection of ripples, divots, sinews, and valleys that will have men in the audience wondering if he’s had extra muscle groups added surgically).
Muscles are not eroticism. They are among its constituent elements for many people, of course. But without the accompanying flourishes of character and flashes of sincere desire, they’re just taut flesh. In the world of Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian is supposed to be the central object of desire. He must simmer savagely, he must ooze not just attractiveness but the baser elements: barely-controlled lust, searing focus, immense power, explosive need. Dornan brings only the beefcake (and, for a split-second, a smidgen of sausage).
OK, you’re thinking, so Dornan disappoints. So the script is trash. You’re thinking, “WHAT ABOUT THE SEX? WE CAME FOR THE SEX.”
Calm down, please, since the sex is also disappointing.
The sex disappoints partly because no one involved seems to actually understand what is erotic about bondage, power exchange, or ritualistic sexualized punishment. The camera lazily bounces from one close-up frame to the next, and the can-we-go-now trancelike effect that often results isn’t very sexy. It’s more like porn than like the grand cinematic fantasyland sex you might expect. It is disposable, non-narrative, edited beyond all narrative congruence, focused on individual body parts at the expense of any whole image of human slide-grunt-slap-twitch dynamism.
Besides failing to stimulate in the ways it means to, it may also smother what it means to evangelize. It is, by all accounts, far from a knowledgeable or realistic depiction of the thoughtfulness, introspection, and emotionally generosity displayed by many of the human beings whose sexuality is organized around BDSM. It probably does a grave disservice to the community and practices it purports to mainstream.
If anyone had any reason to give even half a fuck about either of the people fucking, the stylistic missteps might not cost Fifty Shades much. But instead, the world of the movie is dry, pat, and drawn directly from one-dimensional prince-and-princess fantasyland. Grey is very rich. His office is staffed with tall cookie-cutter blondes in harsh up-dos and two-shade grey business suits (not the boss’ type, naturally). He ushers Steele around in luxury cars and helicopters and gliders. He swoops in to interrupt her whenever she ventures beyond his immediate reach to interact with any other character. His adoptive parents have an estate with all the perfect little cinematic spaces of the rich and famous: foyer with double wrap-around staircase, elaborate garden, and improbable combination greenhouse and swimming pool. It’s all so bereft of detail or backstory or personality of any kind that even Christian’s lush red playroom can’t conjure any real magic.
Bound as it is to its shallow, overheated, mildly transgressive source material through strict contract terms between creator E.L. James and the filmmakers, Fifty Shades of Grey never had much chance of succeeding as a provocative erotic thriller. James’ junior-high dialogue and kindergarten approach to character development are impossible constraints, even before factoring in the decision to adapt erotic fan fiction into an R-rated movie rather than actually revving the sexy-sex engines up into the NC-17 territory the story practically requires.