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3 reviews, 11 user ratings

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Fifty Shades of Grey
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by Brett Gallman

"A morbid curiosity that becomes just plain morbid."
2 stars

It’s odd to say this about a movie based on a notoriously smutty novel about a kinky BDSM relationship, but “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the sort of multiplex-friendly sex show that feels like it’s safe for moms. I’m not saying to see it with your mom—it would still be quite awkward; I am saying that this is a movie that’s more tame than it has any right to be, and that’s a problem since it has very little else going for it.

In fact, this is one of those cases where the journey is more fascinating than the destination: originally conceived as “Twilight” fan-fiction, E.L. James’s writing evolved into a trilogy of phenomenally popular books that removed the pretense of vampires and werewolves in order to bring all of the repressed sex to the forefront. If this first film adaptation is any indication, then it also dispensed with the pretense of plot and character development in order to get right to the fucking point. No foreplay necessary.

I wouldn’t mind that directness if the film had a sustained energy to serve as an outlet for it. You don’t need a meaty plot, not when the story is essentially a fairy tale fantasy of naïve, nubile soon-to-be-college graduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who finds herself drawn into the orbit of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), an enigmatic billionaire harboring deviant sexual desires. What you do need is any sort of heat or friction to develop between the two to compensate for the fact that the entire film is essentially their bizarre courtship. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a sex movie much in the same way “A Most Violent Year” is a gangster movie. Each has its fits and bursts, but both are essentially about negotiations.

But where J.C. Chandor at least infuses his drama with, well, some drama thanks to powerhouse performances and a keen sense of atmosphere, Sam Taylor-Johnson has difficulty outrunning such threadbare source material. For about an hour, she does flirt with the edge of a knowing campiness. When she races straight to furtive entendres and portentous phallic symbols, it’s an admission that she’s rummaging through trash but is willing to have fun with it. Anastasia and Christian’s meet-cute is something straight out of a rom-com: she fidgets as he regards her with the same sort of curiosity a child might look at a toy. With the help of a game, playful performance by Johnson, “Fifty Shades” wryly dances through these motions before threatening to subvert expectations.

Most of the fun arises when Anastasia refuses to simply be a conquest. Somewhere along the way, the story becomes less a male power fantasy and more an opportunity for the target to screw with her predator. Once the two decide that the sex is worth sticking around for, the only true question is whether or not Anastasia will become Christian’s submissive. If he had his way, their relationship would essentially a business arrangement, complete with a contract outlining what each party is willing to do for the other. She obliges by literally holding a meeting in his office to discuss terms.

In what represents the true climax of the movie before it settles on a repetitive, overly-serious, hour-long denouement, Johnson’s disarming humor slays a fundamentally ridiculous scene. Only she and her director seem to be in on the joke that is “Fifty Shades of Grey”—for a film that’s so preoccupied with screwing, it also does a lot of screwing around.

The problem is that the punchline arrives far too quickly. Once it comes and goes, the momentum grinds to a halt as the two leads literally grind on each other. Somewhere along the way, “Fifty Shades” devolves from a twisted take on “Sleepless in Seattle” and just becomes plain sleepy in Seattle, with the overly glum, gunmetal grey surroundings of the Pacific Northwest reflecting the lethargic proceedings. In a galling move, the second half of the film feels like a remake of the first, only it’s been stripped of all its playfulness. Seriously, it’s the same goddamn sequence of events: Christian tries to woo Anastasia with his aviation skills while she can’t fathom his aloofness and refuses to settle for his ideal relationship. Other characters—like Anastasia’s friends and family—appear seemingly out of common courtesy, as if to provide the illusion that other stuff is going on.

Inexplicably, Taylor-Johnson doubles down on the seriousness as she rifles through James’s cliché hackwork, which hints at a sad origin story for Christian that simply won’t allow him to be anything but a smoldering, possessive, and manipulative sociopath. Wan cinematography and dirge renditions of pop songs score the downward spiral because the movie suddenly means business, the will-she-or-won’t-she verve of the second half replaced with a question of whether or not she should even bother to consider the proposition in the first place. That this is even a possibility speaks to how willing the film is to paper over Christian's creepy, abusive advances and paint them as the truly romantic gestures of some kind of tortured soul.

Johnson is given little choice but to comply with the abrupt solemnity and does what she can to spin this ridiculous sexual fantasy into a palatable love story, but there’s only so much she can do when she’s opposite an actor who mistakes detachment for an excuse to barely emote. Dornan doesn’t act so much as he produces dialogue that feels preordained. Since Christian is such a ludicrous figure, it’s tempting to assume Dornan is putting forth a calculated obliviousness: he’s playing a man with very little self-awareness, and it’s almost delightful to watch him struggle to reckon with Anastasia’s commitment towards giving him blue balls.

It’s incredulous that “Fifty Shades of Grey” actually goes for ham-fisted romance because its two leads generate so little chemistry and never truly seem to like each other. For Christian, that at least makes sense for a while, at least until it’s obvious that he’s developing what passes as actual feelings for a girl he otherwise just wants to “fuck into next week.” But Anastasia’s transformation from overwhelmed, inquisitive virgin to willing competitor in carnal gamesmanship gives the impression that it should really just be about the sex. You sense that she’s only afraid of losing the idea of Christian Grey rather than the man himself, so all of their bedroom encounters are weirdly dispassionate and sexless displays of faux-eroticism.

While “Fifty Shades” is more ribald than the average film, its sex scenes feel as pre-fabricated as any CGI-laden action sequence in an average blockbuster—they're fine here but could easily be at home in a Dior commercial. Even Christian’s “singular” tastes are confined to a room full of sex toys. Taylor-Johnson’s camera dwells on this stuff early and often, yet the payoff is minimal and relatively tame. Imagine if Peckinpah’s lens lovingly captured guns for an hour but never bothered to show the squibs. The script works up more titters by merely mentioning stuff like buttplugs and fisting, and even these are only going to feel risqué to anyone without internet access. Films a half-century older than this are more provocative. Then again, what exactly can we expect from a series of books that are prominently displayed in Target? I imagine the DVDs will be sold there too, even though the film’s more natural habitat will be late-night premium-cable rotations.

For a brief moment, Taylor-Johnson reclaims the film’s subversive tendencies with a sharp, abrupt resolution that unfortunately isn’t meant to resolve. It’s an intriguing moment undercut by the knowledge that two sequels are in tow. Resisting the urge to actually follow the script would be truly bold.

That won’t happen, of course—it’d be absurd to leave that kind of money on the table. Besides, “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t really about danger or risks—it never even approaches having to whisper a safe word.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25905&reviewer=429
originally posted: 02/14/15 02:17:02
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Berlin Film Festival For more in the 2015 Berlin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/15/20 Charles Tatum Everything you've heard about this is true 2 stars
2/13/17 morris campbell boring unsexy unless ur in to s&m 1 stars
11/23/15 Luisa For a movie about sex with two attractive leads, this movie is unsexy and bland. 3 stars
3/09/15 Louise Come back Lars Von Trier - all is forgiven! 1 stars
2/23/15 Elizabeth Would rather eat my own vomit than sit thru this crap 1 stars
2/23/15 stanley welles fifty shades of sleep 1 stars
2/18/15 Jack One word: Boring. 1 stars
2/14/15 Bob Dog An unprecedented sexual procedural that teases the viewers till the end... 5 stars
2/14/15 Limp Joe Nothing stiring in my loins from this movie 2 stars
2/13/15 potter fan this movie is FUCKING awesome 5 stars
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  13-Feb-2015 (R)
  DVD: 08-May-2015

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