Fifty Shades of Grey was an unusual film because the behind the scenes struggles between director Sam Taylor-Johnson and author E.L. James, who is a producer on the movie, was noticeable on the screen. It was obvious that Taylor-Johnson wanted to craft a somewhat respectable love story while James wanted to remain true to her vision that she brought to her bestselling novels. Despite the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, Sam Taylor-Johnson would be removed as director and replaced by James Foley and James’ husband Niall Leonard would be handling scripting duties for Fifty Shades Darker. The only question that remained with Fifty Shades Darker is whether or not the sequel would embrace the tawdry absurdity of its source material and abandon any pretense of respectability. The answer is simple – a resounding yes. While Fifty Shades Darker is by no means a good movie, it’s a majestically stupid piece of exploitation filmmaking that entertains despite its ample flaws making it an instant camp classic.
Since we last saw her, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) has left billionaire playboy and BDSM enthusiast Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and started a new job at a publishing company working as the assistant to Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), the amiable fiction editor of this Seattle publisher. All it takes is one creepy gesture and some wretched dialogue over dinner before the passions reignite between Christian and Anastasia. “I want you back. I’d like to renegotiate,” Grey says to Steele. If you’re expecting the dialogue or plotting of the film to improve upon the opening scenes you’re bound to be disappointed. But if you simply embrace the awfulness on display you’re bound to be entertained.
For the most part, Fifty Shades Darker sheds the bondage and sadomasochism that was much of the first film’s selling point. This is more about the after effects of this fetishism, with Christian haunted by various past romances such as Elena (Kim Basinger), his former dominant that introduced him to the fetish, and Leila (Bella Heathcote), his former submissive who has been haunted by the absence of the hunky man’s whips and chains. But none of these aspects of the story actually approach anything resembling conflict but rather minor inconveniences for the two leading lovers. Don’t worry, though, because these random supporting roles at least pay off with ample scenes of unintentional humor.
The fact is that both of these movies are really quite inert dramatically because it can’t craft any sense of tension or stakes beyond Christian Grey’s unwillingness to engage in a conventional relationship. It’s a pure relationship fantasy of a man with dashing good look, a chiseled body, and infinite wealth. The only drawback is this complicated past that manifests itself in a fetish, all of which are hinted at more often than they’re shown. Whether it’s Leila’s obsession, the steely demeanor of Elena, or the dark side of Jack, these are elements of tension that aren’t explored in the slightest, merely a set of teases that will be resolved (or, hell, even escalated) in the next installment.
Of course, the main selling point for the Fifty Shades movies is the sex appeal, and there’s no shortage tawdry sex scenes where the lens of Foley gazes intimately upon the bodies of Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan (or perhaps their body doubles). But just because there’s bare flesh and cheesy R&B music doesn’t necessarily mean that these scenes are in fact sexy as much they simply involve sex. Granted, these sex scenes don’t feel as strained and serious as in the first film, but there’s this silliness to everything in Fifty Shades Darker that undermines any attempts at eroticism. This is especially noticeable in a scene where Christian proceeds to fingerbang Anastasia in a crowded elevator. Van Morrison’s “Moondance” plays over the events for no discernable reason and Foley clumsily allows the scene to lose all of its sensual appeal with sloppy editing and a woeful line reading from Dornan.
But the saving grace of Fifty Shades Darker and what elevates it above its predecessor is the ample amount of campy humor to be found in the film. Perhaps James Foley and the cast were in on the joke, but if they were they never let on. The dialogue of the film lacks in wit and subtlety. The words are so blunt they could be used to assault someone. Thankfully, they’re all delivered with such a straight face that these meaningless and absurd combination of letters and words have no other effect than to induce ample amounts of laughter throughout.
The campy absurdity isn’t simply limited to the dialogue which included phrases like “kinky fuckery” but also to the situations the characters find themselves in and the incongruent resolutions. For example, there’s a moment where Christian Grey’s helicopter experiences trouble and crashes. The fate of the character lies in limbo for about a minute before it’s suddenly resolved in a manner that is entirely meaningless in the context of the film. The film’s emotional climax occurs within Christian’s childhood room; Christian and Anastasia share their feeling while a poster for The Chronicles of Riddick just hangs in the background begging for laughter. It’s impossible to tell if Fifty Shades Darker is a self-aware spoof or entirely serious, and therein lies the single greatest source of its entertainment value.
Fifty Shades of Grey was a boring movie that confused kink for drama while moving at a glacial pace without ever finding the balance between its absurdity and eroticism. Fifty Shades Darker isn’t that much better, but it’s simply better because it’s so damn campy that you can’t help but be enthralled by the baffling storytelling decisions and dialogue choices that run throughout all two hours of this ham-fisted attempt at respectable softcore porn. I expect come year’s end that leading authority on trash cinema, John Waters, will be singing the praises of Fifty Shades Darker because this either a brilliant piece of campy subversion or the most gloriously misguided movie in a long time. Either way, it’s a bad movie that greatly entertains.