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Sunday, February 15, 2015
50 shades of grey - no, thanks
When Francis Ford Coppola adapted The Godfather he mined Mario Puzo’s schlock novel for all the drama and emotion he could find. Many film adaptations of terrible popular novels go for this approach, attempting to elevate the material. Far fewer go the other way, embracing the silliness and the celebrating the lack of quality, camping it up. Fifty Shades of Grey is, for the first thirty or so minutes, one of these, a movie that seems kind of embarrassed by the source material and treats it all like a romp. And then it gets into the back half where suddenly all of the stilted dialogue and unsexy sex become Very Serious Business, and a modern camp classic collapses.
Fifty Shades of Grey is based on a smut novel that in turn evolved out of Twilight fan fiction. In other words its pedigree is flawlessly lowbrow - almost no one can mount a defense that this is more than junk. Which is okay, and when the movie embraces that junkiness I found myself very, very entertained. It certainly helps that Dakota Johnson, playing Anastasia Steele, is wonderfully watchable. She’s funny and sly, and she pumps up this one-dimensional nothing character into someone you actually like and care about. But Johnson is saddled with Jamie Dornan as her co-lead, and he has all the charisma of a clearcut forest. He’s playing a villain, and he never makes Christian Grey feel like someone you’d want to share an elevator with, let alone make out with him in there.
Anastasia is a college senior who, through circumstance, ends up interviewing young billionaire Christian Grey for her school paper. The two click and he begins pursuing her through extravagant and controlling means. As they get closer we learn two things: Anastasia is a virgin (like, on every level) and Christian is an enormous pervert. The plot of the film, such as it is, is Christian trying to convince Anastasia to allow him to tie her up and whip her and stuff.
There are almost no other incidents or plotlines beyond this. Other characters appear - Christian’s family, Anastasia’s family - but they advance nothing, and exist only to pad out the already punishing runtime. Once the brief courtship between Anastasia and Christian ends the movie becomes a repetitive sequence of scenes where the dominant pervert tries to make the unsure virgin his submissive. This is accomplished by her asking him questions, to which he responds. Repeat. In the most immortal line of the movie she asks him what a buttplug is - which is funny not only because it comes up as they are going over a contract that outlines what she’s willing to do sexually, an already funny scenario, but also because you’d think a buttplug’s name is fairly self-explanatory. The girl is an English lit major - surely she can make it out through context clues.
The lack of incident or compelling character sequences wouldn’t be so bad if the film’s sex was particularly sexy, but it isn’t. And there isn’t much of it, and what there is doesn’t feel incredibly taboo. There’s some tie and tease stuff, some ice cubes and blindfolds, but it isn’t until the very end when this BDSM movie gets to the SM stuff, and even that feels weak. Maybe the original consumers of the Fifty Shades of Grey novel didn’t have particularly big worldviews, but anybody who has been on the internet for more than a few weeks will have seen crazier things. I’d say most people who have had healthy, experimental sex lives have probably tried crazier things than what’s shown inFifty Shades of Grey. There’s a scene where Anastasia is Googling “submissives” and finds pictures of women who are bound and is HORRIFIED, and I cannot imagine that a 21 year old girl who is attending a major university hasn’t at least seen images like that before, probably in an on-campus art show or something. The movie seems to be set in 1955, but with cell phones and computers.
The unsexy nature of its smut is only highlighted by the fact that Christian shows Anastasia his ‘play room’ very early in the movie. We get a good look at floggers and restraints and whips and chains… and then they don’t get used for an hour. You could argue that this delay is in the service of a kind of teasing play between the film and the audience, but then you would demand some kind of skill from the film. Building tension is great, but showing off a dungeon and never really paying it off is true cruelty.
All of these implements of pleasure and pain are shot in the same overlit way as everything else in this movie; director Sam Taylor-Johnson approaches every scene with a flat lighting scheme that makes the movie look like a PG-13 body swap comedy from the early 00s. There are one or two sequences that look interesting, especially the Anastasia/Christian board room negotiation (the buttplug scene), but every other bit of this movie is boring looking. Even the sex scenes are shot and edited with what seems to be a generic Sexytime template.
Fifty Shades of Grey’s biggest sin is being incredibly boring; as the film grinds on in its last hour it becomes clear that nothing is going to happen and that Kelly Marcel’s awful, tin-eared script (seriously, this movie has some of the most atrocious dialogue committed to screen in years) is just going to run again and again over the same ground - Christian trying to get Anastasia to sign his contract, Anastasia trying to understand why Christian won’t snuggle with her. I’m sure this is faithful to EL James’ novel, and I’m sure that these lengthy sequences of the two standing around talking about sex come from James’ status as some kind of profound amateur outsider artist with absolutely no sense of drama or storytelling. The film’s intense commitment to being dull makes you long for vampires and werewolves; as bad as Twilight was at least it had these amusing trappings around the edges. Fifty Shades of Grey could have used some metaphor laid over its skeletal drama. Or it should have kept the course of the first act, embracing the incredible silliness of the terrible source material.
At least Johnson is good. If the movie ever gets near sexy it’s completely because of her; she can be silly and she can smolder, and she can go from one to the other in a heartbeat. She’s trapped in this franchise (I do not understand how there are going to be two more instalments of this shit), like Anastasia in some tricky rope, but I hope that this film serves as a launching pad for bigger and better things. She has so much natural life and humanity that she is even able to pierce through the grey fog of bullshit that is this movie.