Fifty Shades of Grey
2015, R, 125 min. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Eloise Mumford, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Feb. 20, 2015
Let’s cut to the chase on this one: If you are going into Fifty Shades of Grey expecting a smörgåsbord of steamy BDSM sex scenes that send you over the moon with images of orgasmic euphoria wrapped in the finest natural-fiber constraints, you best be lowering your expectations. While not entirely stripped of eroticism, the couplings in the film are pretty tame (you’re likely to find much more kink in any given episode of Scandal, truth be told), and the camera tends to pan away like a courteous voyeur before most of les petites morts are achieved. So what are we left with? Just the usual wish-fulfillment fairy tale of a naive girl and her Prince Charming that's been told a million times before.
Based on an obscure novel by E L James, Fifty Shades is the story of Anastasia Steele (an entirely legitimate name), an English Lit major at Washington State, a clumsy plain Jane, and, no big deal, a virgin. Subbing for her sick roommate, she’s interviewing the millionaire Christian Grey (Dornan) for her school newspaper, a man who’s made his money manufacturing things that aren’t important to the story and, also, feeding poor people. The spark that alights from that interview carries over into a courtship that seems to be bound for romance. That is, until he drops an exhaustive contract into Anastasia’s lap that details his predilection as a dominant and his desire to see her as his submissive, and will she just sign please so the flogging may commence?
Snark aside, the first half of the film is pretty entertaining. It has a campy, nimble approach to the material that elevates it above its fanfic origins. Dakota Johnson breathes life into an otherwise drippy, clueless character. She is absolutely the best thing about this movie. Dornan, as Grey, on the other hand, does not fare as well. As written, his character is icy and taciturn, which means you’re in for a lot of pursed lips, eye twitches, and severe looks, and not much else (except, perhaps, his abs). That the couple's chemistry is nonexistent also doesn't help sell the story.
But once Christian introduces Anastasia to his wealthy lifestyle, the rest of the film plays out like some forgotten Calvin Klein perfume ad mixed with an S&M legal drama about butt plugs (Anastasia’s never heard of them) and other similarly complex legal ramifications of things (maybe fists) you stick into other things, with excursions in helicopters, lavish penthouse suites, and of course, red rooms of bondage. The subversive undercurrent at work here – that Anastasia holds the real power over Christian because she actually loves him as a person and will eventually change him for the better – ends up not being that subversive after all. It's a bondage movie without much perversion, a love story without much passion, and ultimately, a film burdened with expectations it could never fulfill. It never quite hits as hard as you want it to.