Aside from the fact it was originally written as Twilight fan fiction, I knew very little about Fifty Shades of Grey going into the theater. I knew there was a bondage element to E.L. James’ story, and she’s sold a ton of copies. Even with this immense success, I never encountered anyone who actually seemed to like the book. I may not fraternize with a bunch of Twilight fans, but I still encountered people in my life who genuinely loved the material. Fifty Shades seems to be a book that has grown in popularity as it’s passed around as an odd piece of cultural ephemera. But those who’ve read it still don’t look you in the eyes when discussing it. A story about forbidden pleasure becomes itself a forbidden guilty pleasure. The movie adaptation of the first book – yes, there are three of these books – may very well be a faithful adaptation of its source material. It is not, however, a good movie, guilty pleasure or otherwise.
The biggest weakness for the film is that it doesn’t capture the essence of a trashy guilty pleasure. Not only is there very little happening in the story, it fails to give the audience any carnal thrills. This is film that feels tame compared to Basic Instinct and, even worse, entirely unsexy. It unfolds into the creepiest love story, if you could even call it that, ever to be projected on a screen. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a college student quickly approaching graduation. When she interviews young, hunky billionaire, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the two discover an unspoken spark between the two. It may be understated between characters, but their connection is emphasized early and often by director Sam Taylor-Johnson with all the subtlety of a heavily breathing man in a trench coat leaning over your shoulder and providing narration: “I…think….they’re….gonna…..do…..it.”
All the details that are revealed just make the entire film feel, well, icky. At first, the relationship between Anastasia and Christian is a game of cat and mouse. Basically, it’s a man using his unlimited resources to casually stalk this young woman until she acquiesces. Taking her on glider and helicopter rides, buying cars, he’s just a knight in platinum armor that will solve all her problems. The only catch is the guy likes BDSM as dominant. Perhaps this all wouldn’t be so astoundingly unerotic if they didn’t make Anastasia a virgin and Christian someone who got into BDSM with his mother’s friend when he was 15. It turns the entire film into an elaborate manipulation by someone with the resources to try and fulfill his deepest desires with a sexually inexperienced young woman. There’s no way around it – that’s just creepy.
It certainly doesn’t help that Fifty Shades is a plotless slog. There’s no possible way I could make the case that there is any real conflict introduced to any of the characters. As much as the film’s conclusion tries to sell a form of power struggle between dominant and submissive, we’ve just been hammered with information that these two people are, dare I say, soulmates. Power dynamics aren’t in play at any point, including the conclusion. For a better look at a power struggle between dominant and submissive look no further than The Duke of Burgundy. If you just want weird over-the-top insanity, seek out R100. Those are movies that make you uncomfortable yet retain a sense of sexiness, even if grotesque at times. The only reason I was uncomfortable during Fifty Shades was the rigid seat.
A lot of noise has been made about Dakota Johnson and Jaimie Dornan’s uncomfortable nature on the press tour for the film. It’s understandable why they’d be uncomfortable talking about the film. They had to act out the ridiculous crap on the screen. Considering what they were given, they did yeoman’s work since there are only a handful of other characters on the peripheries. The most fascinating power dynamic behind Fifty Shades is the reportedly contentious relationship between director Sam Taylor-Johnson and author E.L. James. As a part of the deal to secure the film rights, James was given a role as a producer. Having James with an element of creative control over the film ultimately puts a hindrance on the filmmakers trying to adapt a difficult novel for the screen. There’s no better example than Stanley Kubrick’s wild divergences with The Shining and Stephen King’s faithful miniseries he made since he was unhappy with the finished film. Maybe as a penance, E.L. James should have to craft her next novel to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s demands.
Is a movie where the male lead pulls down his pants and says he’s “rectifying the situation” after learning of woman’s virginity really coming from a well-thought out place? This is movie that tries to leverage energy between the negotiations of a sexual contract, which, mind you, is between a billionaire and a woman who doesn’t know what a butt plug is. But, hey, she does get all fisting stricken from the contract – Girl Power! Fifty Shades of Grey is film that doesn’t even play to extremity of a Seth Rogen comedy, only briefly paying lip service to anything considered extreme. Actually, it comes close to being comedy, but with its bloated running time and its musty eroticism it fails to even provide so-bad-it’s-good pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t go in with my mind made up. The film flirts with being some sleazy fun, and I love sleazy fun movies, but it fails to leave any kind of impression. While it does have a more believable first edition moment than The Boy Next Door, Fifty Shades of Grey can’t even touch Boy Next Door’s trashy entertainment value. I might forget many moments of The Boy Next Door by the end of the year, but I remember more of them than I do from Fifty Shades of Grey right now. It’s not even a flogging worth remembering. They didn’t even use Whip It.