However kinky and taboo the novel Fifty Shades of Grey may be — and I haven’t read it, so I don’t know, and I’m not going to read it, so I’ll never know — the movie version is disappointingly tame and astonishingly boring. It’s about an adult victim of childhood sexual abuse who seeks to perpetuate the cycle in the most tedious way imaginable. It is the unsexiest movie since Bowling for Columbine.
Foolishly, I assumed that since it was a popular novel considered worthy of cinematic treatment, Fifty Shades of Grey must have, you know, a plot. A story. A sequence of events establishing a theme and building toward a conclusion. But this was folly on my part. Here is the entire plot: a virgin meets a handsome billionaire; he introduces her to the world of kinky bondage sex; she doesn’t care for it; the end.
Is the book the same way? (Again: I will have to take your word for it.) Perhaps when it’s stuffed with one ribald sex scene after another, you don’t mind the lack of narrative. That’s certainly the case with most pornography. Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t pornography, but it is LIKE pornography, in that it doesn’t have a plot and the lead actress is named Dakota.
That would be Dakota Johnson, playing a naive Washington State college student named Anastasia Steele. (Surely her parents knew when they named her that she would grow up to be a character in a romance novel.) Through a needlessly convoluted series of improbable events, Ana ends up in the Seattle offices of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a 27-year-old telecom billionaire, to interview him for the school paper. The smooth, unflappable Christian subsequently pursues Ana romantically, careful to tell her up front that his tastes are “very singular.” “I don’t do romance,” he says. He doesn’t do the girlfriend thing, either, or sleep in the same bed as a woman he’s dating, or go on dates.
What he does do, and what he would like Ana’s consent to do with her, is practice bondage and sadomasochism — spanking, handcuffs, whips, sex toys, that sort of thing. He’s a dominant in search of a submissive. When he was 15, his mother’s friend Mrs. Robinson’d him and then used him as a submissive for six years. Somehow the movie believes this is sexy, like it’s supposed to turn Ana on to know her sex-master was molested as a teenager. Is the book like that? Never mind, don’t tell me.
Anyway, because Christian is a gentleman, he wants Ana’s written permission before they proceed. There is a genuinely amusing scene of contract negotiations, in which she basically refuses to do anything out of the ordinary except get handcuffed and spanked. “What would I get out of this?” she asks Christian of his more elaborate fantasies. His reply: “Me.”
Maybe on paper Christian Grey comes across as a smoldering, dangerous, desirable man. On film, played by human doorknob Jamie Dornan, he’s a bland, expressionless cipher. Apart from his money and good looks (both of which are considerable, I admit), it’s hard to imagine why a woman would even date him, let alone put up with his peculiar, specific, idiosyncratic sexual demands. He’s so broody and secretive about it, too. Even having a conversation with him is a lot of work.
The film was adapted by Kelly Marcel and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy). They are both women, as is the book’s author, E.L. James. It is curious that a movie made by women, for women, has the same nudity ratio as movies made by men for men — lots of female nudity, with quite a bit less of the male variety — and also that the supposedly empowering female protagonist is such a doormat. (Kudos to Dakota Johnson, who seems to be talented, for doing the most she could with a flatly written character.) There must be a goldmine of potentially interesting subject matter in the psychology of a person like Christian and/or a person like Anastasia, but the movie has no interest in examining it beyond a cursory level.
The sex scenes, which comprise about 20 total minutes of the movie’s runtime, are steamy enough, I guess, as far as mainstream wide-release Hollywood-produced sex scenes go. But they’ve (apparently) been watered down from the book, to where they contain nothing transgressive or shocking, and they’re surrounded by the direst tedium and a complete lack of conflict or tension. Presumably the sequels will explore forbidden taboos like “character development” and “plot.”
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