Fifty Shades of Grey - Second Opinion Review
Beginning life as erotic fan fiction for the “Twilight” series, “Fifty Shades of Grey” slithered out of the mind of middle-aged British television executive E.L. James, hoping to share every bottled up fantasy and scratch every creative itch that came upon her. Initially written for her own amusement, the phenomenon soon spread like wildfire, providing solace to lonely housewives and introducing BDSM to mainstream audiences. The result is one of the most sought after and controversial novels of the last decade. It was also, by all accounts, an appallingly written and embarrassingly inane tale of romance and sexual domination, proving that not every horny thought that crossed James’ mind should have been put on paper. But money talks, as they say, and a hundred million copies sold later Hollywood was seeing the dollar signs, eager to cash in on the smut-laden craze. Four years after the first book was published, we now have the feature film adaptation. Stunningly inept, atrociously acted, and wholly unsexy, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a failure of colossal proportions, quickly devolving into self-parody and unintentional camp. If this were released twenty years ago, it would have been directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Estzterhas. Yes, “Fifty Shades” is the “Showgirls” of the 21st century.
The film follows Anastasia “Anna” Steele (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Miami Vice’s Don and Melanie Griffith), a virginal, young college student in Seattle, making an honest living as a hardware store employee. When her roommate and best friend Kate (Eloise Mumford), a journalism major, comes down with a cold, she asks Anna to conduct an interview with local entrepreneur and billionaire under 30, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Christian is one of those magical movie billionaires, who is filthy rich, has a private helicopter (that he pilots himself!), a garage full of fancy sports cars and a chauffeur to escort him, but is never actually seen doing any work. I’m not even sure I walked away from the film knowing what his company did for a living (something about tele-communications?). “Do you know how to get there?” Kate asks. “I have a GPS…and a 4.0 GPA, so I should be able to figure it out,” Anna replies. After being treated to some more head-slappingly idiotic dialogue, Anna meets Christian in an encounter that is almost too desperate to dial up the awkwardness (Anna immediately trips and falls when she walks into Christian’s office). During the interview, the two inexplicably fall for each other, and soon enough Anna finds herself on a bizarre sexual odyssey, enticed by Christian’s poisonous charms, soon offered a legally binding contract to become the submissive to his dominant (seriously). Reluctantly complying to his narcissistic demands, Anna eventually yearns for a normal dating lifestyle, but her desires are met with unwavering determination from Christian and his own sociopathic tendencies as he sets out on his own personal quest to own Anna for good.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson certainly had more than her hands full when given the unenviable task of adapting the famously lurid novel into an accessible, R-rated film. With only one other feature under her belt (2010’s flaccid John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy”), Taylor-Johnson surely means well, yet here she stumbles forward with her shoelaces tied together, unleashing a flurry of horrible decisions on the production. To be fair, most of the issues derive from the source material, but certainly there were production meetings held in which they should have discovered how silly the dialogue sounded when spoken aloud, right? Taylor-Johsnon directs the film with a tin ear, hoping to let the physical performances of the two leads and the inherent eroticism of the source material do all the heavy lifiting.
And speaking of eroticism, “Fifty Shades” is anything but erotic, finding a bulk of the film concerned with Anna trying to decide whether or not she wants to sign Christian’s sex contract. A large passage of screen time is devoted to text messages and emails (Christian buys her a computer so she can review the contract) between the two characters, culminating with them having a business meeting in his office, complete with sushi and odd fluorescent red lighting, to reach an agreement over what can and cannot be done in their relationship (luckily for her, anal fisting is out). Eventually the film does find its way into Christian’s red room of pleasure, delivering extended sequences in the torture chamber where naked flesh is on display and Anna’s derriere is whipped beyond recognition, all usually set to a pop song by Beyonce. These sequences are meant to be the centerpiece of the film, but they are executed without so much as a pulse that Taylor-Johnson achieves tedium, not excitement. The weight of the R-rating doesn’t help matters either, finding James’ original intentions mummified by the need to please censors (though I imagine some viewers will be relieved to find there is nary a reference to a tampon anywhere in the film).
A major thorn in the production’s side is the chemistry, or lack thereof, between the two leads. Appropriately enough, Johnson (who is probably best known for being the Stanford girl in Justin Timberlake’s bed from “The Social Network”) channels Kristen Stewart in her role as Anna, delivering a doe-eyed, lip-biting performance until she’s blue in the face. Johnson is out of her depth here, but even more problematic is Dornan as Christian. An Irish actor (and actually quite excellent in TV’s “The Fall), Dornan nearly chokes to death trying to deliver an American accent, taking the cold character of Christian to the literal extreme as he plays the role as a robot. There is never anything sincere or genuine about his performance, and he single-handedly helps to bring the entire feature down. Also of discomforting note is Taylor-Johnson’s male gaze, often lingering the camera on Johnson’s fully nude body, while Dornan keeps his jeans on through the red room proceedings, which is enough to make female movie-goers cry out “what gives?”
I’d also like to call into question the unexplained omnipresence of Christian’s character: he has the ability to teleport whenever the screenplay requires him to. The day after the he meets with Anna he shows up unannounced at her store to pick up some rope and cable ties for his extracurricular activities. Later, when Anna drunk dials him from a bar, he just happens to know exactly where she is and goes there to pick her up. And when Anna takes a mid-movie trip across the country to visit her mother in Georgia, Christian follows her there too, showing up exactly where they are having their brunch. He’s not a committed lover, he’s a creepy and dangerous stalker, but Anna is too much of a dummy to be repulsed by his unwelcome advances. An encounter with Christian Grey should not be reciprocated with love, but rather some pepper spray and a restraining order. There is even a subplot with Christian that includes many references to an elusive “Mrs. Robinson,” a character we never meet but discover is the entire raison d’être for Christian’s lifestyle. Such details are quickly established and then instantly glossed over by Taylor-Johnson, who becomes more and more engrossed on spending endless amounts of time in Christian’s torture room.
For those of you that hate it when your films have an ending, one to wrap everything up neatly, then “Fifty Shades” is just the film for you, leaving the audience with an absurd cliffhanger, cutting to black at the emotional crux of Anna and Christian’s toxic relationship. I have little doubt this film will be a smash at the box office, but this non-ending is built around the smug presumptions of the producers that a sequel is a guaranteed thing, and that these so-called tantalizing 125 minutes from this film will leave viewers wanting more. And therein lies the problem with this film: it takes ludicrous material and mixes it with the most egregious business tactics of Hollywood, hoping to deliver to audiences a product they thought they wanted all along. As it turns out, a film adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” was just the thing that nobody asked for.
For Chris Roger's opinion on Fifty Shades of Grey click here