The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon exists as a gimmicky novelty. It wants to be about sex, but it doesn’t want to approach it with a mature sensibility. It’s a saucy bit of trash artificially built to titillate, but somehow it has managed to push into the mainstream with its massive female appeal. It was certainly surreal listening to the women of my old office trying to defend the book the way Bronies defend My Little Pony, claiming there is much more than its base appeal. Whatever they saw in the novel, it’s certainly not present in this film.
Rather than present two likable characters who we want to see end up together, we are given two leads plucked from a daytime soap opera and plopped into late-night HBO. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) appears as the plucky and curious college grad who fills in for her best friend as an interviewer. Armed with pre-written questions, she is escorted up to the spacious suite of billionaire playboy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She bites her pencil and shyly asks the hunk such juvenile questions as whether he is gay or not. Ana claims these were the questions she was told to ask, but nobody is buying that despite Grey playing along. This supposed love-at-first interview leads to such chance encounters as Mr. Grey running into Ana at her hardware-store job. What would a business tycoon be doing at such a shop purchasing cables and masking tape? Such questions must’ve left Ana’s head as she gets lost in Grey’s eyes.
After rescuing Ana from a drunken night of almost making big mistakes and then showering her with gifts, Grey decides that he wants to be with Ana sexually. As if to be formal with his advances, he draws up a contract for Ana to sign, consenting to his carnal acts of bedroom fantasies. That’s what women like in the modern man, right? None of this sweeping-them-off-their-feet cheese or the old-fashioned dinner-and-a-movie date to hit a home run. If you want to get in bed with a woman, you better fill out that paperwork. Ana, still infatuated with the man even at this juncture, decides to play lawyer and negotiate various aspects of the contract before signing. She specifies which lines needs to be altered and which sexual aspects need to be removed, and she inquires about butt plugs. The dialogue during this scene is so laughably ridiculous that the movie would be a comedy if weren’t staged so earnestly for drama.
The sex scenes themselves are some of the worst I’ve ever seen put to film. It’s not that they’re poorly shot or that they’re too disgusting—the sex, which is a main driving point for much of this film, is just boring. Due in part to such lifeless leads, I felt absolutely nothing for these random shots of nipples, butts, bondage, and peacock feathers. I was not aroused, intrigued, or even disgusted. I just sat there mute in emotion for characters who seemed to replicate those feelings on screen. These scenes don’t feel like real moments of passion or sex, but a manufactured idea of what a marketing group believes achieves such resonance. It’s tailor made for the audience that wants to see a dirty picture, but not one that’s too dirty or challenging. Just flash some kinky crap on screen with a mellow melody of smooth pop and you have softcore porn ready for the slightly prudish moviegoer.
For all the stirring controversy the film has been whipping up for centralizing on copulation, it feels very unwarranted. I’ve seen dramas and even raunchy comedies that take an approach to sex that is far more real, explicit, and meaningful than this by miles. If the world is overreacting to the popular craze of a commercial film that simply features more shots of female breasts than anything, we’ve really taken a mighty step back in progress. In many parts of the world, the film has been edited down in order to be worthy of a PG-13 rating. This sounds rather strange, but it makes sense the more I think about it—teenagers who giggle and salivate over sex will probably get a bigger kick out of watching something they perceive as too adult. As for the adult fans, I’d say it’s just a cheap thrill for the average moviegoer to walk on the wild side, but I failed to find the excitement in all this.
Is there anything salvageable in this mess? If you can peer through all the scenes of goofy dialogue and dead-on-arrival attempts at romance, there are actors seriously trying to put their best foot forward with this material. You have to admire Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan for their courage in voicing such silly lines and acting out such laughable moments of passion. It’s a gig that I’d imagine would seem tantalizing for making a name for yourself, but the morning after for them was probably filled with regret (which, given their recent misgivings about the film, seems very real).
What’s perhaps the most offensive about Fifty Shades of Grey, if anything, is how it favors the I-can-change-him love plot. Ana is a ditz of a woman who is told by Grey that there won’t be any romance in this master/slave agreement yet still believes she can change him. Such a plot seems to suggest that the youthful generation is one of cold and clueless headcases. It’s a rather sad outlook for a film that many loyal fans will attend with the intent of an erotic experience. What they will receive is a dry and bitterly cliché picture devoid of soul. They deserve that look of disappointment when the film ends without conclusion or resonance, leaving on a cliffhanger for the sequel.
The bottom line: Fifty Shades of Grey is a cheap thrill sans the thrill.