Oh, yes, there is a place in the cinematic world for a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). The snark in me wants to quickly add that that place is straight in the garbage, but the honest film lover in me knows that part of what we love about the movies is their flexibility to include glorious trash. The issue is that Fifty Shades forgot the glorious part. And, worse, replaced it with boring.
The movie is, of course, the adaptation of the phenomenally successful book by E.L. James that chronicles a young girl’s entry into the world of sexual bondage and masochism. I’ve not read the book nor am I into bondage but watching the movie is, in a sense, an act of masochism, so in that way they’ve got it right. The girl is Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson), a flavorless college student assigned to interview the flavorless billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her school paper. Mr. Grey, cold and polite, grants her an interview then begins turning up in her life. Ana cautiously reciprocates his fascination as much as she has for a man whose two main identifiers are cold and polite. He hints that he’s hiding a secret and broodingly pretends as if his attraction to Ana is against his will. “Stay away from me,” he says. “I’m no good for you.” This is, of course, catnip for stupid women and Ana falls for it hook, line and mouth-gag. Soon enough, they have that staple conversation of all budding couples, the “Whoops, didn’t I tell you that I want to tie you up and whip you?” conversation. The rest of the movie deals with her grappling of that conversation and includes, surreally, more contract negotiations than one expects from a smut movie.
The leads give it a good go. Johnson can bite her lip and look pensively away with the best of them, and Dornan has a boyishness that takes some of the edge off of the fact that he likes to beat women. However, that’s the movie’s most problematic aspect—selling this story as something other than creepy. I have no doubt that there are people, loads of them, who have satisfying and mutually respectful emotional and sexual relationships based on dominance and subservience, but the whirlwind courtship here seems to miss a few key points. One of the main problems is that if you created a Venn diagram in which one circle included things that Christian Grey says and the other included things that a rapist might say, the overlap is significant. “You say you want to leave,” he tells Ana at one point. “But your body says something else.” That is standard non-consent-type dialogue right there. Of course, he is right, she does want to stay, but that’s the kind of thing that you only know for sure if you’ve read the script beforehand and most of us don’t have that luxury.
Nor do we have helipads, bespoke suits or garages full of Audis, all of which are essential to Ana going along for this particular ride. It’s troubling to realize that the movie doesn’t give Grey any personality and therefore his appeal (and the appeal of his proposition) is wholly tied to his looks and his money, both estimable. When Grey shows Ana his room of bondage paraphernalia, nicknamed the “red room of pain,” he’s lucky it’s just one room of several in his immaculate penthouse apartment. Ana’s reaction of reserved but quivering anticipation probably doesn’t happen if the same room is in a dumpy split-level in Queens. “Just look at me,” Ana says self-deprecatingly upon their first meeting. “I am,” he replies in the kind of skeezy way that people of modest appearance and income can’t get away with. If the movie adhered to a strict “no means no” policy, it would be over in fifteen minutes.
And, because everybody in any imaginable audience knows that she’s going to give the whips and chains a whirl, the build-up is just spinning wheels, placeholders delaying what we’re all there to see anyway. The lead-up is so dry and inconsequential, the characters driving it so bland and uninteresting that we are never pushed to a place where the sex scenes can have any meaning. The movie then becomes a kind of safe word, never daring to get too close to something really scandalous or truly erotic. Reader, please don’t confuse this as a plea that the movie needs more nudity or that the violence enacted upon the heroine should be more severe. The problem isn’t the sex scenes themselves (though they do sometimes resemble more the workings of machinery than the passions of humans) but that they are conducted between two people we don’t care about and represent a battle we have no interest in. Because the filler doesn’t have any emotional stakes, the sex suffers as Ana’s capitulation is utterly meaningless.
The movie is almost begging to be derided and laughed at by people like me because it knows that there are enough people who, even if they don’t love it, will allow it to laugh all the way to the bank. The movie isn’t insulting (I was prepared to lose fifty shades of grey matter) and has, in parts, a sense of humor, which goes a long way in a movie that is otherwise deadly serious about what might be the world’s funniest subject, sex. It just retains too much of its leading man’s personality (or lack thereof); it’s too cold and polite. Too distant. Too risk-averse. What does it say about a movie in which you see enough of the leading lady to give a fairly accurate gynecological assessment yet the sexiest thing about her is that she keeps Faulkner on the bedside table?