I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. Ever since “Fifty Shades of Grey” was shat out into pop culture and became a poorly written phenomenon, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood tried to wring some toilet water out of this turd. I just knew I was going to be lobbed up an easy spike of a review. I was ready with a hammer in hand, nails in my pocket and a couple of nice planks of wood to crucify this monstrosity. But as I watched the film, I realized it wasn’t one of the worst films ever made but a ridiculously derivative, inoffensive chuckler of a movie. My hardened rage soon turned to flaccid ambivalence.
There’s a line in the movie that sums up the entire experience. Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is doing the conversational mambo with the object of his affection, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), while trying to explain his specific sexual appetite. He declares, “My tastes are very singular.” Yes, yes, oh, dear! Lord, yes. That’s what “Fifty Shades of Grey” is: a very singular, one-level experience. There are no levels at play here—no deftly maneuvering storylines that intertwine like a tightly coiled rope. There is only a very straight line drawn from point A to B, with one wide-eyed ingenue and a squinty chiseled piece of granite who wants her to become his submissive sex slave.
I realized early on I was watching this generation’s version of “Pretty Woman.” “Fifty Shades of Grey” is about a seemingly disconnected wealthy industrialist who has a soft side hidden beneath a steely veneer. In “Pretty Woman,” Richard Gere makes a deal with a charming prostitute to be his pretend girlfriend for the week. In “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the main character tries to make a deal with a charming virgin to let him treat her like a prostitute. There are scenes that seem to be directly cribbed from Garry Marshall’s romantic comedy. I suppose if you’re making a romantic movie, you could do worse than to steal scenes from “Pretty Woman.”
“Pretty Woman” did a good job of glossing over the prostitute part of the equation, with only a handful of scenes devoted to the world’s oldest profession. “Fifty Shades of Grey” doubles down on the dirty and sees our sweet, young Anastasia get taken from virginity to spank-doll in the blink of an eye. As a character, she’s kind of awful—innocent in a way that seems almost childish. In one scene she jogs down the city street with her exceptionally long hair tied into pigtails that flop behind her like two sausages hanging from a string in an Italian deli. No woman who goes running would do this to her hair, but it’s more important for us to see Anastasia as virginal than as a real human character with dimensions or a sensible hair routine. And once again I am stuck on the name: Anastasia Steele? Seriously? Why not just call her Purity Chance or Chastity Lockbox? Whether it’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “Inherent Vice,” we seem to have lost our way when it comes to making our characters not sound silly.
The real disappointing part of this whole experience is how unsexy it is. They try really hard to make Anastasia’s erotic adventure feel filthy, but it never gets there. Anastasia is so passive throughout most of the movie that the controlling nature of the more dominant Grey feels like manipulation rather than a passionate romance leading to more risque destinations. It’s like watching some weirdo seduce your sister, and no matter how many times he disappoints her, she refuses to leave him.
I suppose that there are women out there who relish the idea of a hunky man giving them orders and pleasing them with mind-blowing sex (duh), but there’s really nothing to Grey beyond his hunkiness. Their relationship reminded me of Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig in “Bridesmaids.” Even when it works, the whole dynamic is already broken.
Still, I have to admit I didn’t hate the movie. The two leads do their best to bring these sexualized cartoons to life. Her naiveté and his sexually predatory demeanor make for some real giggles. The laughter here doesn’t stem from people being uncomfortable with the material but the dialogue and how it’s brought to life by the actors. Johnson widens her eyes to convey emotion and Dornan plays Grey like a masochistic Vulcan. In the hands of better actors—well, it would still probably be pretty silly. In fairness, I don’t think anyone could have done a better polish on this garbage pile. But there was enough here to make me not hate “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I’ve had far worse theatrical experiences.
Fifty Shades of Grey
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson