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February 16, 2015

Despite hype, Fifty Shades of Grey feels flaccid

The unqualified literary smash hit Fifty Shades of Grey became relevant to our generation of debauched libertines when our parents read the books and forced us to see their relationship from an uncomfortable new perspective. The series has fed our endless quest to figure out what sundry pieces of pop culture really mean, a pursuit keeping hundreds of our millennial colleagues fed and off the streets. However, what these books mean is (happily) not of concern to this column. What you’re here to find out is if the new film adaptation, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, is any good, which it kind of is, actually.

Saying that Fifty Shades of Grey is “kind of good” means it is also “kind of bad.” First, the script is overwrought, especially in early scenes before the actors can settle into a rhythm. When Anastasia Steele’s (Dakota Johnson) second line is “I have a 4.0 GPA,” there isn’t much room for relaxed naturalism. Like another wish-fulfilling romance series that will remain nameless, this movie exists in some kind of parallel universe, where characters are pitched toward realism, but often fall into a kind of uncanny valley of reality. The moments of complete camp are relatively rare, but throughout the whole runtime there was a sense that the crowd at Harper Theater could burst into laughter at any moment.

Sometimes we laughed because scenes tended to lurch between emotional tenors without any logic, shoved in the right direction by an insistent score from Danny Elfman (who, according to IMDB, scored three movies in 2014 and is scheduled for another five in 2015. Keep cashing those checks, Mr. Elfman). Since there really isn’t an antagonist, conflict, or guiding narrative superstructure, the movie leisurely ambles around for 120 minutes, then crashes into its own ending as if the filmmakers ran out of money. We laughed at that, too.

That the film doesn’t slip all the way into ironic disaster is thanks to its two leads. It’s obvious from the first scene that Johnson is capable; she manages to sell shy awkwardness in a way that’s immediately endearing instead of just grating, and her later turns into flirtation and forcefulness feel like natural extensions from her established self. Johnson’s hard work to create this little character arc manages to keep the Ana—Christian relationship somewhere close to believable.

Jamie Dornan, as ultra-manly business dude Christian Grey, is a little harder to parse. In his first meetings with Ana he tends to wear an expression somewhere between skin-harvester menacing and eaten-too-much-peyote terror. Once we spend more time with him, Christian is able to reveal his true character: an immature man-child. This sounds like it might doom the movie, but Dornan is so adorable in his sulking and so blatantly thrilled when he does something right that he becomes a charming foil for the more grounded Johnson.

Their dynamic comes to life in the best scene in the film: the negotiation of the infamous “contract” that establishes the pair’s BDSM relationship. Watching Dornan pout when he has to strike out “anal fisting,” then beam when Ana is pleased with a small concession is precious and silly in all the right ways. Grey is kind of a self-serious clown as written, and Taylor-Johnson is smart enough to wink at this interpretation, instead of insisting that her romantic hero be taken completely seriously.

So what we’re left with is a move that, despite its own efforts to the contrary, achieves some manner of artistic success. Much ink has been spilled over the real-life animosity between Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, but it doesn’t translate to screen. That’s a pity, because it might push Fifty Shades of Grey into epic disaster territory. This film could have been Moment by Moment bad, or it could have been Showgirls weird, or, actually romantic, like In the Mood for Love with leather handcuffs. Instead it lands awkwardly in the middle of the triangle. There’s probably someone this movie is meant for, but if you’re reading this column, it’s probably not you.

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