Fifty Shades of Grey’s consistent characterization as not much more than “trash romance” didn’t have me exactly anticipating writing its review. However, the notoriety and controversy surrounding it had piqued my interest. When Citizen Kelvin politely declined my offer to review the film, I figured I owed it to the Flim Crickets to break out of the slightly restricted pool of films that we’ve to date focused on and instead try to stretch our cultural consciousness. It’s from this mindset of inclusion that we review our first legitimately bad film.
Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is the prototypical romantic ingénue. She’s finishing up her senior year of college as an English Literature major when she’s asked by her best friend and roommate to cover for her in an interview with the alluring 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). While the interview goes less than smoothly, something clicks between Anastasia and Christian, setting off a wild and tumultuous relationship that will quickly rob Anastasia of her innocence.
Let’s just get this out of the way. Yes, this film is bad. Probably as bad as the book (full disclosure: I have not read the book). Yes, there is a significant amount of graphic sexuality (apparently 20 minutes worth). No, it is not worth seeing for pretty much any reason (unless you’re planning on writing a review). Now on to specifics.
Dakota Johnson, for what it’s worth, was able to make some of the cringe-worthy dialogue work and actually earned a couple of honest laughs, especially with some of her reactions to the absurdity of the situations her character was thrust into. She may have the talent to really shine with a quality role but Anastasia Steele (if ever there was a name soullessly manufactured to sound cool and exotic, it’s this) is unfortunately not it. The only times I found myself liking Steele are those times when she demonstrates that she has a will of her own and resists Grey’s overtures.
Jamie Dornan was adequate as the dark, mysterious and handsome billionaire but then again, not very much was asked of him. All he mostly had to do was look pretty and then occasionally angry. Here’s a fatal flaw: this character is just not very interesting. He’s good-looking (but not even particularly striking or memorable… just kind of an average, very good-looking white guy) and incredibly wealthy but he has virtually no personality (his rarely-seen brother Elliot [Luke Grimes] blows him away in that department). This means Anastasia was only superficially drawn to him and, since Grey (as he likes to contend) doesn’t “do” romance, it’s obvious that his attraction to her is only skin-deep as well, which really limits their ability to have any kind of real chemistry. And frankly, the dynamic between them was uncomfortable at absolute best. Watching their relationship develop, I couldn’t help but feel I was watching a sexual predator at work. To put this “love story” in perspective, I find Bella and Edward’s (or Bella and Jacob’s) a far more compelling one… and that’s considering Edward is a couple centuries older than Bella.
The performances were not even necessarily painful so much as often laughable. Now it’s hard to tell if that’s a limitation of the script or of the actors themselves, but it was often difficult to tell if some of the cheesy lines/deliveries were intended to be taken seriously. In that same vein, the controversial S&M sexual sequences seemed absolutely absurd. The raciness of those scenes felt completely artificial and manufactured (which, on further thought, seems not particularly notable, since they happened in a movie). People paid to see some kinky goings-on and director Sam Taylor-Johnson aimed to please. Except instead of it feeling like something intense and forbidden was happening, it just felt like we were witnessing a gimmick.
And honestly, that’s what way too much of the movie felt like. I do my best to stay away from media, commentary and reviews about movies I haven’t seen, but the uproar about Fifty Shades of Grey was near-impossible to avoid. So of course going in, I had a sense of the sexually charged nature of the film. And with even just a sense of it, I found it exceedingly difficult to watch the movie and not pick up on some not-so-subtle double entendres fitting with the movie’s sordid claim to fame. I was half-expecting a character to punctuate one of those lines by breaking fourth wall and winking to the audience. That preceded the actual discussion and perpetration (I almost wrote penetration) of the notorious acts.
There’s been so much controversy and attention for this movie based on the amount and nature of the sexual content therein. What I found interesting and disturbing wasn’t so much the surprisingly mild (at least compared to the hype I’d been hearing [it is Rated-R, after all]) adult content but instead what appears to be at the root of Mr. Grey’s dark sexual desires, something that he only seems to mention in passing (and with little awareness): that he’s a victim of repeated rape. Having not read any of the books, I’m not sure how this trauma is going to be addressed, but the fact that this issue is essentially brushed aside is deeply troubling. For all the talk of this movie sending a terrible message to young woman about what to want and expect from a relationship, I think it’s also worth discussing that Grey’s extended time (from years 15-21) as a “submissive” to a much older woman might have taken a toll on his mental and emotional well-being. If this is what the series is going to build towards as far as the mysterious justification for his “singular” tastes, I think they may have prematurely shot their wad on what was supposed to be a dry run.
The movie’s length isn’t particularly objectionable on its own, but given the movie wasn’t exactly plot-driven or even character-driven, it hardly justifies its over two-hour run time. As the movie sputtered into its last 15 minutes (I know because I checked my watch a couple times after the first hour had passed), all I could think (knowing that two more books exist and the sequels are likely imminent) was “What could possibly happen in this story to justify another 4+ hours of movies…?” All I know is that I am not looking forward to finding out.