Fifty Shades of Grey * (out of 5)
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Marcia Gay Harden, and Luke Grimes
Written by: Kelly Marcel (screenplay), based on the novel by E.L. James
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
The high point (or low, depending on how you see it) of my evening with Fifty Shades of Grey came when I slammed my fingers in a car door following the show. My shooting pain was coupled with a dose of adrenaline, followed by a not-so-subtle ‘tingling’ sensation. What a serendipitous event, for it was a stark contrast to what I just saw. The infamous novel-turned-film left me about as bewildered as one could possibly be after exiting a theater, but one thing was stark in its’ clarity- when an injured middle finger creates more excitement than a film about sexual dominance and submissiveness, you’re doing something wrong. Should not the ‘global phenomenon’ that is the novel be considered at least a little transcendent to be such a ‘phenomenon’? Should not the stars of said ‘phenomenon’ be likable, or at least grab our attention? Should a film adaptation of a novel linked with female sexual empowerment at least dabble in empowerment?
I’m clearly no expert on female sexuality, but if this film is it, the proverbial straw that stirs the drink, then I’m even more perplexed than I already was. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, while possessing a clear understanding of how the film should look, has created a very poor final product that only toys with the idea of sexual intimacy. Taylor-Johnson isn’t bold enough to show us more than brief glimpses of (to be honest) relatively tame sexual encounters between two of the “dumbest smart” characters in recent memory. One of the stars (Johnson) does what she can to bring the frumpy, precocious Anastasia Steele to life, in spite of how the character is written, and the other- Christian Grey- has the charisma and charm of a sloth (Dornan). Wait, I’ve seen some mighty enigmatic sloths. Correction- he has the charisma of a celery stalk. What does it say for their casting choice when I found myself pining for another wealthy yuppie with perverse tastes (American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman)? I blame myself for getting caught up in the hype machine, but alas, Fifty Shades is simply a confusing, dreadful film.
Christian Grey is a self-made billionaire, dabbling in something vaguely resembling publishing or business. By chance, Anastasia Steele (these aren’t REALLY their names, are they?) gets to interview him, and she’s so very intimidated that within five minutes, she’s asking pointed questions. Christian begins to contact her/stalk her until she relents/agrees, and their odd dalliance begins. Why would I say odd? It is clear that she is attracted to him, but he intimidates her. She seems to enjoy what he’s doing, then she’s turned off by it. She seems to understand the figurative pool she’s wading in, then seems shocked when it’s water. It’s clear that he wants her, but despite his multitude of sexual conquests, and a ‘strict adherence’ to the rules, he breaks them. Dornan’s dull performance would have been far more palatable if his character stuck to what he said or stayed consistent throughout the film. Are his various ‘shades’ a purposeful choice? Perhaps, but more than anything, I just want these characters to pick a lane.
Christian and Anastasia continue to beat around the bush (no pun intended) until a fateful moment that I won’t spoil here. My confusion still lingered, with questions like “Why would she push him to do things he stated he doesn’t do?”, and “Why would she request something and then be angry when he does it?”, or “Why do they have safe words when they don’t bother to use them?”, or “Why am I watching this when the internet gives this stuff away?”. The film ended abruptly, with a lack of absolution. Whereas I should have found relief with the end of my frustration, I fantasized about throwing something at the large cineplex screen. The film’s summary is to not summarize, to drag us on another frustrating adventure two years from now with the inevitable sequel. In a way, it ended as it began- without purpose, existing to provide cheap water-cooler conversation and collect our dollars.
Most importantly, I wonder how can this be the ‘it’ thing for the sexual zeitgeist and not be very sexy- in fact, paling in comparison to the occasional late night Showtime and Cinemax serial. E.L. James may have written the erotic coming-of-age tale of our time, but if this is a literal translation, I’m immensely disappointed. How can this not bother to be all that daring? What boundaries are actually stretched in Anastasia and Christian’s romps? I felt going in that I might be torn from my comfort zone, which I welcomed. I wanted to be a part of a reasonable, progressive discussion about stretching the acceptable limits of sexuality, needs, wants, and desires. Instead, I’ve never felt such a letdown from such a supposed controversy. This film isn’t interested in that discussion, at least not without inventing something that truly isn’t there on-screen.
This might actually be the very antithesis of risque- for if it isn’t breaking new ground, how is it an ounce different from the thousands of Fabio-laden tales that preceded? I concede that this may have worked as a novel, for one is inspired to fill in the gaps with the erotic center of their imagination. Women, however, do not seem to be as inspired by visual stimuli (or so I’ve experienced), so a film like this would need to succeed in capturing the spirit of what aroused them in the first place. Does it succeed? I’m not the audience nor the gender to answer that, but no one can tell me this is a brave film.
If the film has anything to hold onto, I would count Anastasia and Christian’s first entanglement as a plus. Christian recognizes the moment, and treats it with dignity and passion. The film allows this to be genuinely thoughtful and almost touching, especially in the way he follows up with her the following morning. After that, their relationship is simply a conundrum. They have a rapid buildups of intensity, followed by the agreement to draw up a ‘contract’, defining what is and what is not allowed in their sexual exploits, then spend the rest of the film confusing us. There is something to the discovery mode of Anastasia’s wants that I wish the story had the nerve to explore. Sadly, it doesn’t.
Through all of the conjecture on social media over recent years, I developed something of a Christian Grey ‘complex’, wondering if deep down, every woman truly wanted their man to be just like him, or at least have a part of him inside. That worry and pure insecurity was for a character that turned out to be a gargantuan snooze-inducer. Perhaps I’ll rest easier now knowing that I have nothing to continue worrying about. Let’s simply agree that this is simply a series of banal scenes amongst a plethora of erotic encounters. In other words, I’m placing it on too high a pedestal, and it is simply softcore porn.
What an enormous missed opportunity this film is. As Fifty Shades of Grey the novel captured the attention of so many, the film could have been something, perhaps the defining film about sexuality in our time. Instead of the immature giggling surrounding this film and novel, we could have moved forward, truly examining ourselves and asking the real questions about what we’re attracted to, and what we desire. Maybe the novel has something further to say about the draw for either character to need BDSM in their lives, something that enriches the reasons for it being a huge part of the story. Maybe Anastasia has an inner dialogue in the book that fills in the gaps that the film offers. The fact that the film was released on Valentine’s Day weekend is a perfect parallel to the consumer-driven farce that is the holiday.
Call it false advertising, call it hype, call it my heightened expectations, but I desperately wanted to see the film that social media told me I would see. The film fails in its’ inability to present the audience with an honest discussion piece about the merits of its’ subject or introduce any new material regarding the current state of sexual politics. It doesn’t want to be NC-17, so it cheats by holding back and not presenting the sex in a more visceral, honest way. If, in fact, this is the tale that jolted the loins of millions- this vapid, tame, cowardly tale, then I can only blame the bedroom partners of those millions for not being their own inspiration. Lovers of the world- be attentive to your partner. Learn what pleases them. Open your minds. Whatever it takes, I beg you to please your partners so the populace won’t feel the need to celebrate this wooden coward of a film.