There’s no doubt about it — E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy has been something of a cultural phenomenon for a good few years, and now that the books are being adapted for the gra — err, silver screen by British director Sam Taylor-Johnson, we can probably remove the “something of” from that statement and just admit that we live in a world where, for better or worse, a poorly-thought-through, breathtakingly unrealistic, teenage-fantasy version of what dominant/submissive relationships are like has won the day. Prior to subjecting myself to the film earlier today, the little bit I’d read about it online seemed to indicate that almost no one, even fans of the novels, liked it very much, and that no group was more up in arms about how flat-out shitty it is than the actual BDSM (or D/S — or, hell, even D/s, if you prefer) community itself. Now that I have seen it, I can report without hesitation that this is, indeed, one of those rare occasions — which are usually quite painful to a knee-jerk contrarian such as myself — where consensus opinion is actually right. In fact, even the most negative reviews are probably, if anything, too kind.
Where, then, to begin with the laundry-list of atrocities? Well, we could start with the fact that 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, who has all the personality of a plank of wood and struggles to keep his Scottish accent buried throughout) would even find “plain Jane” cub reporter Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) worth pursuing for his idea of “romance” in the first place. Or that his corporate security would be so lax as to allow her to show up as an unannounced substitute for her roommate, who was actually supposed to be the one interviewing him (some “control freak” he is) for their college newspaper, without “vetting” her on some level first. Or that a guy who’s amassed a huge fortune at such a young age — which would presumably take a fair amount of work (not that we ever actually see him doing any) — would also find time to become an accomplished pilot and to stay in perfect physical health. Or that anybody as rich as Grey would have trouble meeting a woman who would be willing to take on the role of being his submissive-for-pay. Or that Taylor-Johnson would think that a movie whose primary “dramatic” element is an extended fucking contract negotiation could possibly hope to maintain an audience’s interest for just over two hours.
Ah, you say, but this movie isn’t really about any of those things, right? It’s primarily concerned with being “steamy” and “sensuous” and “erotic,” and should be judged on how well it performs when the lights are low, the music is soft, the clothes come off, and the handcuffs and floggers come out. Well, I’m sorry, but FIFTY SHADES OF GREY fails miserably on all those counts, as well. When Anastasia gets bent over Grey’s knee for her first spanking (complete with him giving her the most groaningly obvious line you’re likely to hear in a movie this year — “welcome to my world”), all I could think was “that’s it?” I’m sorry, but even the most square, hung-up, “vanilla” guy in the world has given his wife or girlfriend a harder slap on the ass than the ones “Mr. Dominant” dishes out here, and all that comes well after a guy who, again, is supposedly all about power, control, and having things his own way consents to plenty of standard-issue, strictly-by-the-numbers sex (while taking every opportunity to remind both her and us that he actually hates this “intimacy” shit) in his attempts to woo her over to his “dark” side.
Honestly, you have to wonder if James, screenwriter Kelly Marcel, and Taylor-Johnson, who comprise this film’s all-female “creative core,” did any sort of research into the subject of BDSM at all before going ahead with this thing. It’s well-documented that the books actually began life as Twilight fan fiction with Edward and Bella in the dominant and submissive roles, and if it had stayed as such, its portrayal of the power exchange in D/S relationships wouldn’t have been any more unrealistic. It’s probably a bit fat-fetched to expect any big-budget Hollywood production to give an honest accounting of the sheer drudgery that’s often a part of completely controlling someone else’s existence and/or having someone else completely control yours, but it’s certainly not too much to expect a film that hinges more or less completely on its glamorized depiction of sado-masochistic erotica to at least find a way to make it either titillating, intriguing, or both. Instead, Taylor-Johnson brings all the “passion” to her “playroom” (does any self-respecting dominant person actually refer to his or her sex chamber as that?) sessions that Tommy Wiseau did to his “love” scenes in THE ROOM — and with fairly similar end results.
One of the weirder things about this flick is trying to decipher why any woman would be interested in Grey (who is always dressed immaculately in expensive tailored suits but has a pair of torn and frayed jeans mysteriously appear whenever it’s time to make The Beast With Two Backs And 2,000 Bruises) for any reason other than his money, such a blank and uninteresting slab of (admittedly well-cut) meat does Dornan’s lackluster performance make him out to be, yet we’re expected to believe that there’s so much going on “underneath the surface” with him that a reasonably educated, purportedly interesting young lady like Anastasia will turn to absolute jelly for him after one measly helicopter ride with the guy —while also, paradoxically, holding so much power over him that she’s slowly able to, even by his own admission, begin turning him into the kind of “regular” boyfriend she wants him to be. Dornan’s constantly blank look also doesn’t do anything to help us understand why someone in his position would — sorry to use the term, but — submit to her basically doing the legal equivalent of jerking him off but not letting him cum for days on end while she hems and haws over his stupid fucking contract offer. Johnson (the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) displays considerably more in the way of acting “chops” than her co-star, and she has a more realistic (if still slightly anorexic) frame than most other Hollywood leading ladies, but she doesn’t exude any of the mystery or charisma, or even uniqueness, that would be required to keep an honest-to-goodness young, handsome billionaire — even one completely devoid of personality, much less anything resembling “charm” — waiting around for her with baited breath. Far be it from an armchair critic like myself to know enough about the art of filmmaking to offer advice to an established director like Taylor-Johnson, but here’s a tip anyway : when you’ve got a movie that pivots entirely on the relationship between its two leads, those leads really do need to be pitch-perfect for their roles.
Still, whether or not the success of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY signals a return of the erotic studio film remains an open question. Despite its blockbuster opening weekend, Universal has been curiously reluctant to publicly commit to putting sequels in production, although the film’s stars are under contract for those films. This may be at least partially due to reported clashes between the film’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, and the author of the “Fifty Shades” novels, E.L. James, who was given an unprecedented level of control over the film adaptation of her books as an on-set consultant. The film’s quick drop-off in box office after its huge opening weekend has only added to the uncertainty. In a climate where hit comic-book adaptations immediately have multiple sequels announced at the first hint of box office success, Universal’s timidity regarding putting FIFTY SHADES OF GREY sequels into production is troubling. Regardless, there will almost certainly be a number of low-budget films riding the residual wave of hype from FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, although most of these will probably go direct to home video and VOD. Since the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon reached critical mass with the release of the books in 2011, independent producers have already released films such as the documentary INSIDE THE FIFTY SHADES: REAL WOMEN CONFESS (directed by David Kane Garcia, 2013). Some home video companies have already taken advantage of the success of the “Fifty Shades” novels to repackage older exploitation films for new audiences, such as Blue Underground’s Fifty Shades of de Sade DVD set. Now that the film is out, there will likely be more reissues of such films hitting shelves in the near future, similar to the boom in home video releases of “grindhouse” films following the release of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s GRINDHOUSE (2007). As for the big screen, one can only hope that Universal and its competitors will take the success of the film as a clear indicator that female audiences will show up in large numbers when a film is tailored specifically for them. And hopefully it won’t be another two decades before another blockbuster film made for adults finds its way into U.S. theaters.