I should start this review by being as frank as possible. I’m not really sure who this review is for. With Fifty Shades of Grey, you’ll fall into either one of two camps. You’re either planning to see it (or have already seen it) regardless of what I’m going to say for the next couple of paragraphs, or you’re going to avoid the film altogether thanks to the esoteric nature of its erotic subject matter.
But for those of you who have fallen to the wayside and are a bit curious thanks to the shape this pop culture juggernaut has taken, don’t follow up on that feeling. Because if you’re willing to sit through this two hour slog without heeding my warning, you’re also “fifty shades of f**ked up.”
I’m at a weird place with Fifty Shades of Grey as I don’t know what to credit or blame for its problems. As much as I want to point out the funkier stuff like its atrocious and pointed dialogue, it’s hard to completely criticize given where this film comes from. Based on the Twilight fan fiction turned erotic novels, Fifty Shades of Grey is the first in a three story series where Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) gets into a dangerously abusive, yet apparently arousing relationship with distant billionaire bachelor Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). There’re S&M sexy times, S&M horrifying times, and stalker times. It’s your typical film relationship. But much of the story is unintelligible and if you’re even slightly disconnected with the central relationship, there’s nothing else to latch on to. Since I’ve been told that the film strictly follows the book material, good luck finding something you like.
For example, I still have no idea what exactly Christian Grey does. Even the context clues are all over the place. His company Grey House is apparently big in telemarketing, but also plants trees in Africa? And when he’s questioned about the nature of his business, Grey’s answer is always “don’t worry about it.” In fact, we’re meant to “not worry” about so much in this story, it’s incredibly frustrating. There’s so much back and forth between Ana and Grey that it’s hard to stay invested, and the sex scenes (numerous as they are) feel even more superfluous when there’s no emotional attachment. When these scenes drawl on for an extended period of time, it feels incredibly manipulative (which is probably the worst thing a story in which a man wants to own another person can do).
But I bet you’re wondering about the sex, right? The rest of the film would’ve been easier to swallow had the film at least shown off inspired sex scenes. Unfortunately, book fans won’t appreciate the sense of restraint the film has. Other than one sex scene in particular (there’s ice involved, if you want to know which one I’m referring to), Fifty holds itself back from some tantalizing scenes. While the Fifty Shades books are widely regarded for their explicit depictions of S&M scenes, it’s incredibly subdued. It’s a shame that we could’ve had a positive depiction of S&M culture within a mainstream film, but even those aspects are fudged. Safe words are explained but never used, Ana never completely agrees with the play (and I’ll give credit to the scene when she does finally say yes, and realizes how much she dislikes their relationship), and their relationship is always of sheer dominance rather than a shared knowledge between the two of each other’s limits.
Honestly, I could’ve written all of that stuff off (as I’m willing to forgive so much with films aimed at a specific demographic) had Johnson and Dornan shared any believable semblance of chemistry. Credit to Johnson for making some of the dialogue work as her performance is kind of incredible. She’s witty, has a good delivery, and drives home Ana’s terribly written naivete (she doesn’t know what butt plugs are, but is aware of genital clamps?). But it’s a shame that she’s essentially having sex with a brick wall. I can’t tell if Jamie Dornan is intentionally wooden (as Grey is supposed to be this stoic, distant, and broken man), but even when he’s turning up whatever he thinks passes for sexual gravitas it falls flat. That’s Fifty Shades of Grey‘s biggest and most problematic issue. Without a compelling central relationship, the film falls apart at the seams. Once you lose interest, you realize how bad the pacing is, how insanely Grey obsesses over Ana (he finds her several times without her revealing her location), how lots of the sex scenes are similarly staged, and how emotionally manipulative the dialogue is.
Fifty Shades of Grey has a few redeeming qualities as some moments hit the right sensual tone, every scene hilariously has the color grey somewhere in it (which should be commended for commitment alone), and Dakota Johnson should use this bad film to star in better films. But the film is an extended tease with the promise of a payoff that never quite comes.
Now I won’t spoil the film’s ending, but the audience’s reaction perfectly illustrates my point. Since the film’s story is so horribly handled, it just blankly ends. When the credits started rolling, there was a loudly audible “WHAT,” as one woman felt duped. That all comes back to the manipulative dialogue I mentioned earlier. You see, I understand why these types of fan service stories make money. Like those dollar store Fabio cover romance novels, they fulfill a need that isn’t met elsewhere. It’s a shame the market is so closed off that shoddy projects like this get so much attention because these women deserve something better than this boiled garbage served to them on a stagnant platter.