Wandering into Fifty Shades Of Grey on the eve of it’s release carried with it the illusion of an event. The theater was of course filled with middle-aged women (as well as a sprinkling of the twentysomethings they once were) and the lights going down came with peppered applause. It was like attending a preview for a major Marvel movie for the menopausal and for a moment I at least wanted to get excited. Then the trailer reel kicked off with a Nicholas Sparks adaptation as well as a series of Sparks-inspired shirtless frolics and reality reared its ugly head. Sure, the Fifty Shades got plenty of attention for flinging bondage at housewives in Wal-mart, but this is the movies. There’s not really such thing as alternative sexuality in a Hollywood production unless David Cronenberg was responsible and even he’s softened significantly over the years. So as you’d expect, this is another soft focus weepy love story, just with some ball gags and handcuffs included tossed in. Worst of all, it’s not even hysterically or laughably bad like the Twilight nonsense that inspired it. The whole thing is just a big ol’ waste of time.
So, this sexy tale of sexiness kicks off with the mousey, quiet, repressed, yet oh-so-beautiful Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) taking a college newspaper assignment to interview the handsomely handsome billionaire businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Yes, the characters all have porn star names. It’s best not to think too much about that. She’s all nervous and he’s all confident, but an intense attraction begins. From there, the movie turns into one of those cornball fairy tale romances about the wealthy dreamboat falling obsessively for the quiet little poor girl and eventually taking her home to his castle. Once there, Christian shows Anastasia his play room full of ball gags, whips, chains, leather, rubber, and all sorts of other sadomasochistic fun. She’s freaked out at first, but he insists that’s the only thing he likes because he’s tragically flawed like all heroes in all idiotic romantic fantasies. Eventually she relents and signs up for the lifestyle. So now Christian must teach Anastasia about the pleasure/pain divide and in the process there’s a chance that she might teach him about love. I know. Gross, right? You have no idea.
Admittedly, there’s something moderately charming about Hollywood embracing alternative sexuality in their big dumb glossy romances, if only because it presents something different than the usual happy Christians making out in the rain between promises of saving themselves for marriage. However, any moderately forward thinking aspect of Fifty Shades is ambushed by sleaze and cheese almost instantly. The dialogue and situations are horrendously corny and the sex scenes play out like episodes of The Red Shoe Diaries with gentle S&M flourishes that are carefully calculated not to offend your mom. It’s just the same old cornball romantic movie routine, just with some games of tie-up this time.
Now, had all of this absurdity been played completely sincerely, there was a chance that it could at least be a camp classic. Unfortunately in director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), the producers ended up with someone who was probably a bit too smart for the material. In the early going, Taylor-Johnson clearly tries to play the nauseatingly corny seduction scenes for camp comedy and it never quite works. Partly because the audience for this tripe aren’t primed for irony and partly because the material is just too ridiculous for winking self-parody. The director also tries to shift the power dynamics slightly for the feature, having Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia actually control the relationship despite all the tie-ups and naughty-naughties. It’s a twist that makes the material less offensive and more complicated. Plus it gives Dakota Johnson enough to work with to actually deliver a decent performance unworthy of the movie surrounding her. So, not a bad approach. Too bad the people who will actually be paying money to consume this swill won’t be noticing subtleties and the plot is far too absurd to present anything remotely resembling reality.
You see, no matter how hard Taylor-Johnson tries to do something even moderately interesting with this movie, there’s just no fighting the fact that this whole project began as Twilight fan fiction and the final product is just as irritatingly idiotic as that suggests. Plus there’s Jamie Dornan’s performance as Christian which finds a nice balance between what it would be like if the role was played by a birch tree and what it would be like if he was played by a whip with a frowny face drawn on with a Sharpie. I suppose it’s too harsh to call it a bad performance because that would suggest that Dornan did any performing at all. Nope, instead he just delivers all of his lines in monotone, looks attractive, and stands in the right area of the frame for author E.L. James and her legion of fans to project all of their fantasies onto him without any pesky personality or humanity getting in the way. That kind of sums up the move as a whole, in all honesty. It’s just a bunch of hooey in black lace that’ll give impressionably lost viewers the sensation of having seen something illicit even though they’re actually just watching the same old dumb romantic fantasy clichés yet again.