Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.
2015. Rated R, 125 minutes.
Marcia Gay Harden
You might recall that a couple years back the book Fifty Shades of Grey was everywhere. Ev-uh-ry-where. Morning talk shows ran features on it, late night hosts brought it up in their monologues, and just about every woman from 18 to 80 had something to say about it. Whips and chains in the boudoir suddenly became the hot topic of discussion. That was the case even in my neck of the woods, Let me explain why that warrants mentioning. Though I am not a religious person, I married into a very religious family and now live in a very religious part of the United States - the south. Specifically, I'm in North Carolina, proudly part of what's known as The Bible Belt. I can assure you, there is nothing more bizarre than seeing two ladies you often hear beginning and ending sentences with the phrase "Praise the Lord" start a conversation by one of them asking the other "Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?"
Without having read it myself, I had no idea about the plot, but of course, I knew it was erotic literature. I wasn't interested in reading it, either. I'm a visual sort of guy when it comes to my solo missions. Mrs. Dell? She got real curious. This is interesting because other than what she has to slog through for school, she's not much of a reader. Rather than spending money on it, smart girl, she decided to check it out from the local library. She tried to, at least. It seems lots of church ladies had some free time between Bible Study and the various services they attend each week. Mrs. Dell was put on a waiting list. She was like number 120, or something. Come to think of it, she might still be waiting. Maybe it’s true most women like to take it slow, make it last longer.
Wifey still hasn’t read the book, but figured it pointless when we went to the movies on a group date night with a bunch of other married couples to see The Wedding Ringer. Trust me, it was not our choice. I’ll give you one guess what movie the first damn trailer was for. Yup. You could hear spontaneous orgasms all over the theater. Some of them went on for a little while, too, thanks to the trailer being backed by Beyonce singing a super sultry version of “Crazy in Love.” I knew I was doomed to see this movie whether I wanted to, or not. Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. After making its way up my Netflix queue, voila! There it is in my mailbox. Not sure what she thought this was, but Mrs. Dell not only insisted on waiting until the kids went to sleep before watching it, but also watching it in our bedroom, where we almost never watch movies, with the door locked.
The light switch in our room is about a foot up and four inches to the left of the lock on the door. In pretty much one motion, Mrs. Dell locked the door, hit the switch, and turned around, facing the interior of the room. In that tiny sliver of time between hitting the switch and turning around, I raced across the bedroom, pressed play on the Blu-Ray player, and made it back to where I was sitting/lying in bed, covers seductively hiding my lower half while revealing the not-so-rippling muscles of my torso. Was I that anxious to see Fifty Shades of Grey? Hell no, but I was damn sure ready for it to end.
Before you get through the end of a movie, you have to actually watch it. Since this is at least partly a review, that means I should write about it. Simple stuff, really. Girl meets boy. Girl finds out boy is into some kinky shit. Girl is not, but wants to be with boy, anyway. The end.
Oh, you need details? I guess I can do that so you can have a bit of context for what I have to say about it.
The girl is named Anastasia Steele (Johnson), a naïve twenty-something filling in for her roommate Carla (Ehle), who isn’t feeling well. Carla is a reporter and the task she hands Anastasia is interviewing handsome, twenty-something billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan). The two fall head over heels for one another and embark on a really weird relationship. It is almost immediately apparent that Mr. Grey is a tortured individual. Tortured being the operative word because it manifests itself most in his sexual appetites. Not only is he really into S&M, he insists on only playing the dominant role. The rest of the film consists of him trying to convince her to be his next in a long line of submissives while she tries to sell him on the idea of being a regular couple.
I mentioned that the relationship between Anastasia and Christian is a weird one. Christian’s sexual proclivities is not that to which I’m referring. Plenty of us meet someone whom we discover to be into something we’re not, sexual or otherwise. Either we adapt and stick with them or decide it’s not worth it and move on. It happens. I’m talking about how he and Anastasia interact on a non-sexual level. In fairness, there is nothing truly non-sexual about their interactions because what will or won’t happen in the bedroom dominates every conversation. Despite this, nothing about the two of them together screams burning, hot romance. There are tons of rules for being involved with Christian including a contract he wants Anastasia to sign. This is basically a consent form allowing him to whip her ass with impunity. I mean "whip her ass" in the most literal sense of the phrase. The plot is made up entirely of whether or not she will sign it. There is even a “business meeting” in a board room to negotiate terms. It’s a very seductively lit, i.e. dark, board room, but a board room nonetheless. I guess it has to be lit that way when you’re haggling over the inclusion or exclusion of anal fisting. True story.
Anastasia’s love for Christian is supposed to shine through, making us understand why she would even entertain the notion of being subjected to his pain for pleasure brand of sex when she never has before. I mean, she REALLY never has. Along with Christian, we learn that when she met him, she was a virgin. Talk about going from zero to one hundred in an instant. The problem is that Christian is so icy and robotic, he’s unlovable. Jamie Dornan’s performance does not give his character the necessary mystery nor depth to make him appealing. At least ninety percent of the time he is on camera, he employs a pained psychotic death-stare as his mode of acting. He looks like he’s about to open fire in a public place while simultaneously straining to hold in a humongous turd. Dakota Johnson is a little better. She tries to inject some genuine emotion into a script that has none. It doesn’t help that she’s working opposite an angry mannequin. She’s not quite strong enough an actress to pull it off. Despite a similar look, no one should be mistaking her for Rooney Mara. Then again, I’m not sure how much better Mara would have made this. The chemistry between Johnson and Dornan is rendered null and void.
Even if our two leads were excellent, they would struggle to overcome the less than dynamic writing. It’s lazy, predictable, and repetitive. Anastasia and Christian have the same exact conversation roughly a million times. She asks “How come we can’t sleep in the same bed like a normal couple?”
Invariably, he replies “I just don’t do that.”
The other conversation they have from time to time starts with her asking why he’s into whips and chains. He’ll either drag her off to show her “something,” or she’ll ask to be dragged off and shown. Somewhere during this she’ll mention that she hasn’t signed the contract yet. Regardless, they proceed with getting’ busy. Then it’s back to the first conversation.
The biggest thing Fifty Shades of Grey has going for it is its look. Its color palette is filled with basic colors that contrast nicely with one another. That it occasionally gets carried away with the titular color is a bit gimmicky because it plays directly into the title and Christian’s last name. Still, it is interesting as the film tries to give fifty actual shades of grey each a little screen-time. It is subtle enough not to come off as ridiculous, yet obvious enough to be an extension of the character it represents. Plus, it’s all rather crisp looking. This includes some immaculate white dress shirts worn by Mr. Grey.
When the color scheme and some nice shirts are clearly the best thing about a movie, there’s a problem. A lot of problems, in this case. It’s all clichéd melodrama punctuated by sexually charged, but not particularly sexy scenes. The warmth need to make them sizzle is missing. Granted, some of that is by design, but it’s missing from every inch of the production, as well. Anastasia comes off as pathetic, devoting all of her energy to a man not worthy of it, excluding his bank account. Therefore, when we get to the contrived cliff-hanger ending we first laugh at the stupidity of it all, then cringe at the threat of a sequel being unleashed on humanity. At least that’s how I felt. Mrs. Dell hated the ending, but only because she hates any ending that isn’t completely wrapped up. I wrote about it here. She liked the movie as a whole and is actually looking forward to part two. I can live with that if the viewing experience for that travels the same path as this one. I did say the door was locked. Now, I was shutting off the TV and the lights.