Fifty Shades of Grey may be the first film in history made specifically for the purposes of hate-watching. Adapted from E.L. James’s unbelievably popular novel (at its height it sold two copies every second), it can be said in absolute terms that whatever lusting and fantasizing readers of the book did beats the hell out of this tedious, monotonous, and straight-up boring adaptation. It stands to wonder what fans of the book could even be looking for in this project. A story? Not really. Well-drawn, relatable characters? Nope. Eroticism? That’s what most will be looking for, but the sex scenes in this movie are so clinical they may as well have been filmed in a dentist’s office. Action films of the 90’s, which seemed contractually obligated to have a token sex scene, have steamier trysts than what’s depicted here.
The film stars Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele, an English literature major who, as the film opens, reluctantly agrees to do an interview with young business tycoon Christian Grey (Dornan) in place of her ill roommate. What Grey’s conglomerate does is not made clear, but he’s a billionaire with a penthouse office who takes an immediate liking to Anastasia. He pursues her all over town and begins sending her high-end gifts. When Anastasia finally gives in and gets to know Grey, he reveals that he is not, in fact, at all interested in a relationship. Well, not a normal relationship. He’s into dominant/submissive S&M sex in a windowless room at his luxurious apartment and wants Anastasia to sign a contract (!) to be his submissive partner.
That’s about it. Some nonsense surfaces about Anastasia and Christian’s families, but the bulk of the story is Christian gradually upping the ante during each encounter. Ana, by all accounts a reasonable person, continues to play along even as Christian repeatedly admits he has deep problems (“fifty shades of f*cked up,” as he puts it) and comes off as a stoic creep to anyone with half a brain. Take away the wealth and good looks and no woman would get near this guy and his sex lair, which makes this whole enterprise all the more materialistic and hollow. It could be turned into Hostel Part IV with very little rewrite time. Storytelling is barely even a tertiary priority as sex takes center stage. While Fifty Shades of Grey has much more nudity than most studio films these days, it’s in service of awkward, cringe-worthy sex scenes that don’t even come close to heating up.
I know, I know, it’s all a fantasy, right? But is it? Is this what women really fantasize about? In a competently fleshed out story there would be room to make Anastasia and Christian’s relationship about something more than misogyny, but that’s not what this film is about. It’s about attempting to appeal to base, crudely drawn escapades with no depth or thought. So, basically, a porno. And you can watch those for free.
Kelly Marcel, adapting from James’s novel, wisely chooses to add some levity to a story that otherwise takes itself way too seriously. Some early scenes work and Anastasia comes off as a likable character before entering a hellish circle of misplaced feelings and monologues that practically beg for audience members to yell “you’re a moron!” at the screen. Dakota Johnson single-handedly holds the frayed threads of Fifty Shades of Grey together, but it’s all so thankless. Seeing her character degraded into a mopey, clueless mess is one of film’s more unforgivable turns. Jamie Dornan never goes beyond cold, calculated territory as Christian. Failing to balance emotional wreckage with the sex symbol he’s supposed to be, the character comes off as stiff (no pun intended) and way too easy to dislike.
Like all money-printing franchises, Fifty Shades of Grey ends with a tease (something this film is actually good at). That’s right, there are two more books to adapt and roughly four more hours of this sludge on the way. Considering what little story there is, it seems delusional for a studio to expect people to sit through the sequels. But they will, because inside all of us is the hope that things we like will be done right under circumstances beyond of our control. Fifty Shades of Grey has nothing to offer anyone, and is yet another swift flog to the ass that our imaginations are infinitely more powerful than the vacuous studio drones that thought this book was filmable.
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 125 Minutes
Rating: R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language.
Theatrical Release: February 13, 2015
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Written by: Kelly Marcel. Based upon the novel by E.L. James.
Cast: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Jennifer Ehle, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden