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A Painful Color Scheme

Focus Features
 125 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
Fifty Shades of Grey

I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey or any of the other volumes in that trilogy by E.L. James, nor do I have any intention of doing so. I am aware that the books have not been critical favorites. However, I do know that’s it’s possible to make an excellent movie (Bridges of Madison County immediately comes to mind) from mediocre source material. Be that as it may, my gut feeling is that no matter how bad a novel Fifty Shades is, the book is probably better than the movie.


As a movie, Fifty Shades of Grey is ostensibly about a dominant/submissive relationship between an incredibly handsome and even more incredibly wealthy young business tycoon and a seemingly ordinary college senior. However, as near as I can tell, it’s not about any dominant relationship or any romantic or sexual relationship of any kind that’s ever existed anywhere other than as the fantasies of a teenaged girl.


Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a mousy, introverted college literature major who agrees to stand in for her sick roommate (Eloise Mumford) and interview media billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the school newspaper. Naturally, the interview doesn’t go too well, as Anastasia mumbles and stumbles around completely. She soon meets Christian again when he pays a visit to the hardware store where she has a part-time job and buys “do-it-yourself” supplies like tie wraps and duct tape. Of course, every person in the audience who’s heard even one single word about Fifty Shades (either book or film version) knows full well why Christian wants these supplies, but Anastasia is somewhat clueless.


What then follows is a whirlwind romance in which Christian lavishes tons of material goodies and tons more dreamy looks in Anastasia’s direction. Despite some cryptic comments by Christian that he doesn’t “do” dating or conventional romance, he winds up doing plenty of both and in short order has the previously virginal Anastasia hopping into bed with him.


At this point, Christian drops the bombshell about his peculiar tastes and tells Anastasia that if she wants to continue seeing him, she’ll have to play his rather unusual types of fun and games, which involve pain and bondage. He’s not some garden-variety sicko either, he’s made a business out of his kinkiness, down to the detailed contract he wants Anastasia to sign. The contract sets forth what she is and is not willing to do, various safe words, and just how far they are willing to go.


At this point, you would think the movie would go in one of two directions. Either Anastasia tells Christian to take a hike or she agrees to play along. You would be wrong. Instead, Anastasia, who had heretofore exhibited about the same amount of worldliness as Dorothy in Kansas, begins playing games with Christian, insisting that she’s not sure whether she’ll go along with his rules. Christian, the supposed kinky dominant reacts by chasing after her, proclaiming his love every step of the way and acting like every lovestruck high school student since time immemorial.


I actually found the opening sequences in Fifty Shades believable and mildly entertaining. I can see a man of Christian’s peculiar needs being attracted to someone who actually appears to be innocent. However, this attraction is certainly not based on anything Anastasia brings to the table intellectually or socially; she’s nice enough but nowhere near as charming as, say, Julia Roberts was in her version of the Cinderella story, Pretty Woman. And once he realizes that she’s not going to play by his rules, he’s certainly not going to waste more time and energy pursuing her, especially when he could easily find dozens of women willing to play his games.


Logic wouldn’t matter if the relationship between Christian and Anastasia was the slightest bit interesting in any other way. The movie’s hard R rating is certainly warranted, there’s a good bit of nudity and some fairly spicy sex scenes. Surprisingly, however, there’s almost no dominance or pain involved (with the exception of one scene late in the movie). Instead, his slapping her rear end a couple of times has the opposite effect.


The movie isn’t content merely to turn business mogul Christian into a moonstruck kid; it gives him a load of emotional baggage as well. As he eventually explains, he was abused as a teenager and now he reacts by seeking out pliable women… not to abuse them (since he’s a perfect gentlemen) but to dominate. Of course, now that Anastasia (and presumably the audience) realize they’re dealing with a hurt little boy, it’s just a matter of time before her nurturing presumably wins out.


I say presumably because Fifty Shades has a cliffhanger non-ending that’s worse than anything I’ve seen in any serialized set of films ever. The movie literally comes to an end with a door closing and a cut to the end credits. As cliffhangers go, it’s very lame, and as dramatic integrity goes, it’s an affront to the audience.


Fifty Shades can’t even succeed as a guilty pleasure. It’s plenty bad enough, but, after the first half hour, it becomes monotonous and tedious, with even the sex scenes generating little spark. Dakota Johnson seems capable enough and she has the right flirtatious attitude, but Dornan, despite his good looks, doesn’t come across as anywhere near as dangerous as the role requires. This latter shortcoming is especially surprising considering how effective he was in the British TV series, The Fall.


For that reason, I place most of the blame for this debacle on director Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose only previous dramatic feature was the John Lennon coming-of-age drama, Nowhere Boy. She never decides on a consistent tone for the movie (going from the near camp of the hardware store scene to the most overwrought of melodrama), resulting in a movie that often seems completely different from one scene to the next.


Fifty Shades of Grey has done big business so far, which indicates to me that people are so fascinated by its subject matter that they’re willing to put up with a completely ridiculous story to witness the few moments of what remotely resemble sleaze. Fifty Shades thus resembles a much slicker, immensely higher priced version of the old softcore teaser movies of the 1960s. Audiences get a good enough look at what the filmmakers want to pass off as a kinky lifestyle, but nothing that, in the long run, they will really enjoy seeing.

Read other reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey:


Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) on IMDb