Curious? The posters for Fifty Shades of Grey coyly ask.
Whether or not you’re one of the 100 million who bought, and presumably read, E L James’ kinky book, the buzz alone surrounding this Twilight fan fiction turned international phenomenon is enough to pique the interest of a rock. Fifty Shades of Grey is inherently spectacle.
With all that irresistible anticipation, how could a movie about BDSM be so run of the mill? The short answer: fear and money. It’s one thing to read about the bondage-enabled sexual awakening of a virgin. It’s quite another to see it depicted on screen.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson had an impossible mission on her hands to meld the tawdry with the conventional. It’s like trying to mash up the sensibilities of Lars von Trier with Nancy Meyers to create an end product that will be appealing on a mass scale. In trying to please everyone, though, Fifty Shades of Grey has stripped away the fun and settled on palatable. There have been perfume commercials with more depth and story arc.
For the uninitiated, Fifty Shades of Grey is about lit student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and her torrid affair with 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). They meet on a lark, when her aspiring journalist roommate gets ill and Anastasia agrees to help out by subbing in to interview the handsome mogul.
The two are made to look as mismatched as possible. She’s a clumsy innocent with a childish ponytail in tights and a cardigan, he looks like he’s just stepped out of an ad for bespoke suits and new money pretention. We’re supposed to believe that sparks fly immediately, but this first meeting conjures up the dynamic of a predator and a scared feral animal more than anything else.
Still, something snaps in Christian and he decides he must have her as his own. He starts popping up everywhere, from the hardware store where she works to the college bar where she’s had a bit too much to drink to save her from a handsy friend.
Soon he’s whisking Ana (Ms. Steele as he calls her) away on his helicopter to a garish bachelor’s pad/penthouse apartment, wooing her with white wine (but not too much, as he constantly reminds her), domineering gazes, and antiquated formalities. Laughable sexual innuendo peppers all their conversations.
But instead of the will-they-won’t-they tension that even the silliest sitcom can pull off effectively, the unfortunate consequence is that the nearly 40 minutes that it takes for Christian and Ana to go under the sheets almost seem more gratuitous than anything that happens in the Red Room of Pain. Also, after the sex starts, so do the exhaustive and dull contract negotiations.
The chemistry between Johnson and Dornan is decent, even if they do seem to be acting in different movies. Dornan’s Christian is a humorless caricature, while Johnson’s Ana is actually quite likable, funny and strong-willed. In a film full of flaws, Johnson is an undeniable bright spot.
A lot has been made about what the popularity of James’s book says about American women and their sexual fantasies. On screen, that conversation makes even less sense. Fans hungering for less conventional depictions of sex haven’t been looking hard enough — non-pornographic sex is not unchartered territory in cinema, or even television for that matter. There is more scintillating material in a premium HBO show than in this version of E L James’s book.
Fifty Shades of Grey, had an opportunity here to do something different — to give a mass audience something worthy of all the hype.
We may have all been curious going in, but by the time the credits roll, there’s another question that springs to mind: Is that all there is?
Fifty Shades of Grey, a Universal Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language.” Running time: 125 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.