Fifty Shades of GreyReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/12/15 15:02:00
The morning after seeing the long-awaited screen adaptation of "Fifty Shades of Grey," I awoke to the news that this film and its presumably shocking sexual content--which, after much discussion over what would and could be shown, finally received an "R" rating from the MPAA--was deemed acceptable for audiences 12 and up by the equivalent ratings board in France. This was greeted by much clucking in the press about those wild French people and their loose attitude towards sexuality but I read it more as the sickest imaginable burn from a country that knows its erotica towards what America has deemed to be hot stuff in that only a 12 year old could possibly be shocked or scandalized by its content--anyone older or more sensibly-minded would rightly laugh off as the ridiculous and decidedly non-arousing trash that it is. An erotic drama that doesn't sizzle as much as it does parboil, this ridiculously hyped nonsense deflates expectations so quickly that it feels as if Bill Belichick was inexplicably allowed into the editing bay. (Sorry but that joke's shelf date was coming up soon and I wanted to use it before it expired.)For those of you who have either been living under a pop-cultural rock or take a certain amount of pride in your literary consumption, the "Fifty Shades of Grey" saga began in 2009 with the online publication of an erotic trilogy of "Twilight"-inspired fan fiction penned by first-time writer E.L. James. Upon getting a good response from those in the market for pornographic variations of the infamously sexless vampire saga that inspired several of the worst books and films of their era, James rewrote the books into their own universe, got them published and stood back in what I can only hope was surprise as they became an international phenomenon that would sell approximately 100 million copies, inspire a slew of imitators that will be overloading bookstore remainder shelves in the next year or so and kick-start the "mommy porn" genre. However dubious their literary merit might be (and I have personally attempted to plow through the first book on three occasions only to be thwarted no more than fifty pages in by James's unspeakable prose--imagine the world's longest letter to "Penthouse Forum" as penned by Dan Brown), it nevertheless struck some kind of chord with its target audience despite the fact that it could only be considered truly outré by people lacking the ability to define or even pronounce the word "outré."
Our heroine is Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a sweet and virginal English lit major at Washington State University (an august institution that nevertheless has a tendency to display banners bearing the name "Vancouver"--the film's actual shooting location) who considers herself to be plain and ordinary even though every male she encounters seems to be intoxicated by something while in her presence--possibly pleurisy. Anyway, as the story opens, she ventures off to Seattle to interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a 27-year-old walking Dewars Profile and head of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate of indeterminate nature (let us just say that it produces widgets) who has just made a sizable donation to the school, perhaps not knowing of their confusing Canadian ties. By most journalistic standards, the interview is a bigger bust than "The Interview" but the controlling tycoon and the innocent student nevertheless make what is said to be a powerful connection and before long, he is wooing her in his own inimitable way--sending her first editions of "Tess of the D'urbervilles" (between this and "The Boy Next Door," rare book dealers seem to be turning into aphrodisiac merchants), turning up at the hardware store where she works, rescuing her from the bar where she has drunk-dialed him (pushing around the old friend trying to steal a kiss in the process) and whisking her away to his lavish Seattle apartment via his own private helicopter.
It all sounds like a fairy tale in theory but as Ana soon discovers, in a manner more painful than sitting through "Into the Woods," fairy tales are not always what they are cracked up to be. Christian, as he likes to explain at the drop of a hat and at length, is not like other guys--he needs to be in control at all times, he doesn't do romance in the traditional sense and he conducts his relationships in much the same way he conducts the business that we never seem him working at after that introductory scene--on a strictly transactional basis in which all of the parameters are hammered out in advance. Most of all, he is a sexual dominant whose thing is to find women that he is attracted to and groom them as submissives in order to indulge in the various examples of kinky sexplay outlined in the contract that he has them sign in advance--instead of dinner, a movie and cuddling, he is more into binding, gagging, whipping and the like. (In other words, the yoke is clearly on her.) Her immediate response is to ask "What's a dominant?," a question that would hopelessly naive coming from a recent high school graduate, let alone someone about to graduate from college, even a surreptitiously Canadian institution.
This leads to what is the key scene in the film, the moment when Christian allows Ana into his locked playroom ("Is that where you keep your X-Box and stuff?") in order to let her see what he is into and what she is in for if she agrees to sign the contract. As she tours his debauched sexual Batcave, we are clearly supposed to share Ana's wide-eyed surprise as she looks through Christian's collection of whips, chains, handcuffs and other kinky sexual accoutrements--the kind of strange and unusual items that are so beyond the pale that they could only be acquired by someone of Christian's self-proclaimed singular tastes and resources or by anyone with access to the classified ads section of "Rolling Stone." Instead, I found myself idly speculating on the architectural details of the room and how it might eventually inspire an especially odd theme episode of "House Crashers." (In my dreams, the Blu-Ray includes a deleted scene in which one of the workmen goes home and is asked by his wife "So, how was work today, dear?" Meanwhile, our dim bulb heroine wanders around asking about the specific uses of the various items on display--this makes sense, I suppose, but I still maintain that when it comes to butt plugs, they are fairly self-explanatory.
Christian promises that he will not do anything with Ana until she signs his version of the legendary Massey pre-nup but Ana's questionable allure proves to be too much for him and they are soon doing what my late colleague Roger Ebert used to refer to as "the rumpy-pumpy." Things start off slow with Christian first relieving Ana of her virginity and then moving on to dribbling wine and ice on her navel before moving on to light bondage, blindfolds and spanking. In between their various trysts, Ana continues to hem and haw over the contract while Christian tries to sweeten the deal with such bonuses as a new car and computer, glider trips, introducing her to his family (including Marcia Gay Harden as his mother and pop princess Rita Ora as his sister) and following her to Georgia to meet her mother (Jennifer Ehle). She even gets him to open up a little about what made him the way he is--items I leave for you to discover on your own--and begin to emerge from his own particular cocoon. However, there are still other things going on in his life that she doesn't understand and that he simply cannot share with her--such as the simple question of why he would derive such pleasure from "punishing" her if he claims to love her--and these issues eventually bring their relationship to a head, so to speak.
As I said, I was never able to actually make it through the book but if the film version is even halfway close to the source material (and since E.L. James was contractually given a hefty amount of control over the film's production, I would have to assume that it does come at least reasonably close), I am even more baffled by its popularity than before because this thing, at least in its cinematic incarnation, is absolutely wretched from beginning to end. (You get the sense that the safe word for the film as a whole must have been "rewrite.") For starters, even giving the fact that it began life as "Twlight"-inspired fan fiction, the story is an absolute joke at best and deeply disturbing at worst in the way that it tries to romanticize and glorify what many would consider to be an abusive relationship. Oh sure, there are those who will no doubt try to suggest that it is a subversion of such ideas in the sense that Anastasia, by slowly introducing Christian into the world of healthy emotional relationships, is actually the true dominant in the relationship but I promise you that such explanations are nonsense. What we have here is the story of a borderline sociopath who gets his kicks out of controlling and dominating the lives of young women, insisting that they never breathe a soul of what goes on behind his well-appointed doors and lavishes her with gifts to ensure her silence and a weak-willed doormat who figures that his hunkiness and his baubles are worth the price of the occasional flogging. For those of you who disagree and look upon this as some kind of fantasy ideal, let me ask you this--would you still be thrilled and aroused by Christian's antics if he was a grease monkey at Pep Boys making five figures a year tops?
How this will all play to the film's faithful fan base is questionable at best. The story is, as I noted, ridiculous, poorly developed, filled with painfully bad dialogue (my favorite example being the part where Christian, in all seriousness, describes himself as being "palm-twitchingly mad") and populated by two of the most banal central characters to appear since the demise of the "Twilight" franchise. For most of the time, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel are satisfied to simply replicate the material in the most plodding manner possible but there are weird moments here and there in which even they seem to recognize the ridiculousness of what they are trying to depict and wind up leaning the material in the direction of near-campy comedy. This is a strange addition (I assume it is an addition because of all the words that I have seen used to describe the original novel, "self-deprecating humor" have not been among them) but it does leave to the film's single best scene--the long-awaited contract negotiation between Christian and Anastasia that gives new meaning to the phrase "implied oral consent." Other than that, it is basically a two-hour commercial for a perfume that you would never dream of wearing driven by an exceedingly random soundtrack (it includes the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden" even though "When the Whip Comes Down" was on the flip side of the same album) working overtime to generate the heat and emotion that the film itself fails to do. (There are a couple of Beyonce songs on display, presumably because the producers felt that "Blank Space" might be a little too on-the-nose and not just because of the "boys only want love if it's torture" bridge.) It all concludes with a finale that is so poorly executed that even the people at the presumably fan-heavy preview screening I attended groaned and catcalled it--the end of "2001" provided more closure than this finale and was slightly more arousing to boot.
At this point, some may argue that I am merely proving myself to be a prude who just cannot handle the raw and offbeat sexuality on display in the story at hand. While film critics dealing with erotic material are often reticent to discuss the salient point of whether the film in question turned them on (probably a good idea considering most critics) but I am willing to admit to enjoying films from the past ranging from the goofy soft-core fantasies like "Emmanuelle" and most of the Zalman King oeuvre ("Two-Moon Junction" 4-Evah!) to more serious-minded works like the Phillip Kaufman masterpieces "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Henry & June" to the unabashedly kinky likes of "The Night Porter" and Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" saga. (On the other hand, due to certain preferences regarding the female form, I may be one of the few people around who watches Russ Meyer films solely for the cinematic virtues.) The trouble with "Fifty Shades of Grey" is that it once again demonstrates that the more that something tries to insist that it is truly edgy and transgressive to anyone who will listen, it almost always comes across as much less than advertised. There is plenty of flesh on display (mostly Johnson's and nothing much from the nether regions) but relatively little heat and while it could be argued that some of the edgier material had to be dropped in order (most notably a notorious sequence involving a tampon) to get the commercially viable "R" rating instead of the dreaded NC-17, a bigger problem is that the film is so hung up on the mechanics of the sexual escapades that it forgets to include the passion--the end result has all the erotic allure of shop class and at least in shop class, you get a horse-head bookend in exchange for your labors. There is more sexual snap in any given episode of "Game of Thrones" than can be seen here, not to mention better choreography.
One of my all-time favorite nasty review quips--sadly, I do not recall who said it or where it was published--dealt with the erotic drama "Wild Orchid" (the Blu-ray of which, funnily enough, arrived in the mail as I was writing this review), which contained a climactic scene (no pun intended) between Mickey Rourke and Carre Otis that inspired rumors that they were actually having sex on camera. Whomever the critic was, they opined that they must have been having sex for real because Otis was not a good enough actress to be able to fake an orgasm. The reason I bring this up is that, having seen "Fifty Shades of Grey," I can say without hesitation that Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson do not quite reach the august standards set by Otis. Rather than presenting himself as the brooding, mysterious and dangerously attractive business magnate, Dornan comes across as something more along the lines of the third-in-command of the evil frat in a lesser 80's-era campus comedy. Meanwhile, asked to bring one of the least inspiring female literary characters of our time to life, Dakota Johnson's attempt to create an aura of sensual innocence and curiosity is so wooden that every time she is on her back--a frequent occurrence here, as you might imagine--I believe that it could technically be classified as planking. Ever since the film began production, there have been rumors that the two stars were not getting along--deadly for a film that is almost entirely dependent on the sparks generated by the central characters--and while that may or may not be true (although the wildly uncomfortable interviews they have given during the promotional tour certainly suggest the former), they never for a single moment click as a couple engaged in a passionate and overwhelming relationship that pushes their physical and emotional boundaries. Hell, based on the evidence here, these two couldn't develop anything remotely resembling chemistry if they spent a year together in a meth lab interning under Walter White."Fifty Shades of Grey" is absolute dreck from start to finish and the fact that there are two more already announced films to complete the trilogy on the horizon (don't you dare split the last one into two separate films, Universal) is a notion infinitely more painful than any of the exertions performed upon Dakota Johnson here with no accompanying pleasures of any sort that immediately come to mind. It will clearly be a huge hit in its opening weekend thanks to the hype and anticipation surrounding the brand as a whole but I can't imagine that it will really satisfy most of the devoted fanbase, many of whom I suspect will discover that the images they created in their mind while reading the book were infinitely more interesting and definitely more arousing than the ones presented here. Meanwhile, those not already on the bandwagon mind find themselves wondering what all the fuss was about since whatever it was that made the book so exciting to so many clearly has not made it to the screen at all.
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