By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 14, 2015)
Fifty Shades of Grey: Makes 2 hours feel like 9 1/2 Weeks
Fifty Shades of Grey is either the most cleverly arch soft core porn parody of all time, or…they were trying to be serious. Hang on (with apologies to Jon Stewart), I’m receiving word that yes, they actually were trying to be serious. Oh…and I understand that it was apparently based on a novel, which I’m being told has done well with sales. I haven’t read the book, but if it is a virtually plotless, kinky sex fantasy that is curiously devoid of any kinkiness or sexiness, then I’m here to tell you that this is one film that’s faithful to the book.
It’s your typical tale of a virginal English Lit major named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) who meets cute with a hunky (and mysterious) Seattle-based 27 year-old bachelor billionaire businessman named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). And it’s like, you know, total kismet. Anastasia is a last-minute fill-in for her roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford), who was supposed to conduct an in-person interview with Mr. Grey at his corporate HQ for their college newspaper…but she got the flu (or something).
So anyway, Anastasia’s all like, you know, rolling her eyes and junk, but OK, she’ll do it, because she’s a good friend. Soon she is in Mr. Grey’s lofty, spacious and impressively appointed executive office, rattling off probing questions like “Are you gay?” from her roommate’s notes.
Faster than you can say “porn movie exposition”, Anastasia and Christian begin to display signs of Mutual Attraction. Mere days pass, and before Anastasia knows what hit her, Christian is handing her a contract for her to review and sign. You know, one of those contracts wherein the First Party (the Submissive) agrees to all the terms dictated by the Second Party (the Dominant), which are, to wit, Abandon all Hope, Ye Who Enter Here…and to cater to every sexual whim of her dominant male master.
Some intriguing avenues pop up, but are not explored. For instance, there’s a glimmer of Hitchcock’s Marnie in Christian; a tormented, sexually dysfunctional character who hints at possible trauma earlier in life that has left him incapable of affection and love. Instead, he remains a cardboard figure, with no sense of depth or backstory after we learn early on that He’s Mysterious (Dornan’s one-note performance, which vacillates somewhere between catatonic and Ben Stiller’s “blue steel” look from Zoolander, doesn’t help).
To her credit, Johnson (an oddly endearing morph of Zooey Deschanel and Charlotte Gainsbourg) gives a palpable impression she’s having fun with her character, occasionally rising above Kelly Marcel’s insipid script, especially in a scene where Anastasia calls a “business meeting” with Christian to negotiate contract terms (‘Anal fisting’? That’s right out…and what exactly is a ‘butt plug’?). If the film had been intended as parody, that scene would be comedy gold.
But alas, the film is neither comedy, nor is it drama. Nor is it particularly kinky (despite the lovingly fetishistic camera pans of the accouterments that supplement Christian’s “play room”). Most notably, it’s not in the least bit sexy. In fact, it barely qualifies as soft core; it’s about as erotic as a TV ad for Viagra. Despite the intrinsically provocative nature of its SM theme, the film comes off as weirdly sanitized (it might as well be a remake of Beach Blanket Bingo).
While it lightly flirts with gender politics (who’s really in control of the relationship?) it is not making any discernible political statement (like the similar but far superior 2002 film, Secretary, or going back further-Swept Away or The Night Porter). The end result is a total wash. There’s no “there” there. The film is its own 51st shade of grey. I’m reticent to lay blame at the feet of director Sam Taylor-Johnson, as I admired her debut film Nowhere Boy, but the buck has to stop somewhere.
I’m all for suspending my disbelief when I sit down to watch a narrative film (even a film that is somewhat devoid of a narrative…like this one, for example). But if you present me with a protagonist like Anastasia, who appears to be a literate, college-educated young woman with a strong sense of self, and then ask me to believe that she would miss so many red flags on the way to falling head over heels for a creepy sexual predator like Christian Grey? Not buying it for a second. Red flags, you ask? What about sweet talk like this: “I’d like to bite that lip. But I’m not touching you until I have written consent.” Or “I don’t do love.” Or “I don’t ‘make love’…I fuck.” (How dreamy! Betcha he says that to all the girls).
Not to mention the stalking behavior. Or the fact that he recoils from any attempt by Anastasia to express affection. Maybe I shouldn’t get so worked up; after all, who’s going to buy this premise anyway, in our modern, feminism-enlightened society? Wait a sec…now I’m being told that millions of people (the majority of them women) have literally bought into it…with 70 million copies of E.L. James’ books sold worldwide, record-breaking pre-sales of nearly 3 million movie tickets.
So perhaps at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether this film is “good” or “bad”. Maybe it’s just one of those critic-proof “event” movies, so hotly anticipated that it comes out of the box robed by a protective cocoon of cultist devotees who will not be swayed by the nattering nabobs of negativism like Yours Truly.
After all, it’s only a movie. But it still begs the question: Why this film, with its weirdly draconian subtexts…and why now? Aren’t there enough stories on CNN about hostage-taking, torture and suffering (and lest we forget, ongoing systemic oppression of women around the world) to turn people off to the idea of hitching their star to an erotic fantasy about willingly signing up for this kind of shit?
Or am I overthinking again?