If you like softcore pornos with cheesy mid-day soap opera dialogue permeating eighty percent of the running time, then Fifty Shades of Grey is your movie. But if you’re reading this review, I’m guessing that that description doesn’t sound up your alley (this review may contain a few more puns like this one, just a forewarning). This brings up the following question. Why is a softcore porno that is filled with cheesy mid-day soap opera dialogue met with such high demand? Why, it’s based on a best-selling book, of course! Yes, an erotic novel that has been described by the author herself as nothing more than Twilight fan fiction has now been adapted for the big screen. We should’ve seen this coming. But in this toned down, R-rated adaptation of E.L. James’ best-seller, director Sam Taylor-Johnson (yes, wife of Aaron Taylor-Johnson) gives us little “playtime” and much conversing, with its main characters babbling on about a set of rules and, god help us, family situations.
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, you’re better off. But let me enlighten those who don’t. Basically, if you’ve read the Twilight books (the movies exist too, but I try to not mention them on any occasion, even during a casual cup of tea), and you have any form of sexual imagination, you can figure out what’s going on in Fifty Shades. We meet Anastasia Steele (I’m not making this up), who does a favor for her friend and goes to an interview with billionaire Christian Grey. What they didn’t expect was the spark that is lit when they are with each other. They hit it off, and of course, Anastasia Steele (again, not making this up, that’s her actual name) falls for him. Here is Bella. Here is Edward.
But Christian Grey doesn’t do romance. When Anastasia mentions them possibly going on “normal dates” such as going to the movies and out to dinner (the two most obvious ones, I might add), he practically gags (these innuendos will continue). No, Christian Grey doesn’t do flowers. He doesn’t do dates. He doesn’t sleep with his women. He has a particular taste. Christian’s edgy sexual preferences are likened to Edward Cullen’s vampirism, if you haven’t made the connection. In a scene halfway through the movie, he says, “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.” This sums up his character well, as we are introduced to his particular set of interests, all concealed within his “playroom.” It’s S&M heaven. And this isn’t typical kinky sex stuff. Forget cuffs and blindfolds. Try ropes, zip ties, whips, and other forms of rough pleasure that you may not be able to find at your local Adam & Eve store.
This guy is serious about his sex. So serious, in fact, that he requires his host to sign a contract, filled with pages of rules and regulations about him being the “dominant” and her being the “submissive.” A scene in which Anastasia edits out certain lines of criteria aloud to Christian is one of the film’s best (that isn’t saying much, trust me), as it did garner a few laughs from just how ballsy the script was (see? More puns). When Anastasia asks Christian, “What do I get out of this?” he simply responds, “You get me.” This is where the movie runs into its problems, and it all circles back to the issue of screenwriters (and this includes novelists and storytellers in general) not knowing how to write a firm and bold female character.
As I watched this movie unfold, I kept asking myself why Antastia kept going back to Christian. I don’t get it. Maybe some girls will read this and say, “Well, you’re just a guy and you wouldn’t get it.” I refuse to believe that. Throughout this entire movie (I would say it takes a good hour or so before we even get into the kinky stuff, which isn’t nearly as kinky as the sexual items themselves), Antastasia kept pondering the contract (she never even signs the thing!), and always turns away in disgust from the things contained within it. But she always runs back to him. There is one scene in which she drunk calls Mr. Grey and makes fun of him for constantly changing his mind from “Stay with me” to “Stay away from me.” It was pretty funny, and upcoming star Dakota Johnson shines in small moments like these, promising potential. But the script always falls back on making her do the exact same things that she is mocking. She keeps running back to him, and as a viewer, it becomes increasingly frustrating to understand just what makes her want more of him.
Now I get that the movie is about Anastasia exploring her sexuality, but it doesn’t feel like that. Instead, Anastasia feels like a dumb, poorly written, and undeveloped character that just needs a man in order to be complete and fully functional. In this case, he happens to be into things that she isn’t into, not into the things that he is into, but keeps coming back anyway. “I’m in love with you,” she says at one point, but he makes it clear that he doesn’t do the love thing, so what’s the point? Going back to the scene in the film when Christian says that in exchange for becoming his submissive, she simply “gets him,” it reveals the real absurdity and offensive quality of the film’s message: Women need a man, and they need to succumb to a man’s desires without any expectation of love or returned adornment. It’s quite appalling and I can’t see why any girl would appreciate a film with a message such as this.
Now that all that negativity is out of the way, I feel that it’s important to mention the positive elements of the film (there aren’t many). First of all, even though I’ve spent the majority of this review ripping apart the central message and its treatment of its female lead, I will admit that this film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey is better than it has any right to be. The dialogue is cheesy, without question, but it doesn’t cross the line of idiocy that is contained within E.L. James’ novel (I haven’t read it, but I’ve read excerpts). The best thing about the film is the way it looks. From the opening shot, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers, Godzilla) crafts a well-lit and sometimes appealingly stylish picture, capturing suitably grey color tones and a darkly seductive red inside the “playroom.”
Also, as I’ve mentioned before, Dakota James has a few moments to really show herself (I enjoy these puns too much). I’m not talking about the sex scenes as much as I am her dramatic scenes (really, they make up the majority of the movie). I wouldn’t call her performance “good,” but it is certainly better than Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian Grey with a sort of stillness that resembles a cardboard cutout. I’m just surprised that director Taylor-Johnson didn’t opt to show his dick.
Which brings me to the sex. What would a review of Fifty Shades of Grey be without mentioning the sex? Firstly, it takes forever to even get there. It seemed like ages before we even got a peek inside the “playroom,” and even longer before any sex. And even longer before any kinky sex. Secondly, it’s all pretty tame. Keep in mind, this is an R-rated picture. Obviously, the crew behind the film chose to restrict a few things to keep from receiving an NC-17 rating, which would cut down ticket sales. Can’t say I blame them. And even though the sex is tamer and less frequent than you may expect, some of it is still somewhat edgy for an R-rated movie.
I’m still not entirely convinced of what Fifty Shades of Grey is trying to do. Is it objectifying women or is a tale of a girl that makes a monster discover true love? I got that vibe from the final twenty minutes or so (which I liked quite a bit, if you can believe it). The finale of the movie is (somewhat) dramatically heavy, and it hints at possible deeper secrets from the film’s titular character. If only he had been a character that was interesting or relatable. But that’s a key issue. We don’t care about Christian Grey at all. He’s abusive to women in his own “privileged” way, but you know Anastasia is going to keep coming back because he’s rich and sexy. Give me a break. At one point, Anastasia asks Christian why he has these desires (this being about “punishment,” but I don’t want to spoil anything) and his reply is, “I’m fifty shades of fucked up.” It’s just a taste of some of the laughably terrible dialogue, this example being so bad it’s almost quotable. It’s hard to believe that this script was written by Kelly Marcel, who wrote Saving Mr. Banks. What went wrong?
The film is approximately two hours in length, composed of around eighty percent of character buildup (all cheesy), fifteen percent of sex (well filmed, but tame), and five percent of miscellaneous bullcrap (family dinner, Mom walks in on sexual episode, etc). What’s such a shame is that the eighty percent of the movie that is focused on character development barely ever even explores the psychological side of BDSM. If you want to see a better film that shows the true side of dark BDSM behavior (not hating on kinky sex, by the way, just the dark stuff), check out Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, specifically the stuff with Jamie Bell in Volume II. That’ll hit you in the gut. Maybe that psychological stuff comes into play later in this series, but as a standalone film, Fifty Shades of Grey is fifty shades of boring, uneventful, unintentionally funny, somewhat offensive, and narratively jumbled nonsense.
Rated R for for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language
Starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan
Written by Kelly Marcel
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson