By now you’re surely aware of the Fifty Shades of Grey (50SOG) phenomenon and basic storyline: enigmatic 27 year old billionaire meets naive college student, and, for little apparent reason, they begin a bondage-domination/sadomasochistic (BDSM) relationship. The mega-bestselling 2011 novel quickly spawned a Fifty Shades trilogy, and the inevitable Hollywood film was released last weekend over Valentine’s Day. The good news is the 50SOG movie is not a fiasco on par with Showgirls (still the gold standard for bad cinematic sex, although often unintentionally hilarious). It remains, however, a dull and dreary affair in every sense of the word.
The problems begin with Jamie Dornan, who plays telecom mogul Christian Grey, the “dominant” in the BDSM couple. Dornan has a slight, boyish presence and doesn’t project the magnetism necessary to carry the role. The “submissive” Anastasia Steele is played by Dakota Johnson (the daughter of screen actors Melanie Griffin and Don Johnson), and her performance is the best part of the film. Even though her character is horribly underwritten, Johnson makes Anastasia a sympathetic and even dignified figure rather than someone who is pathetic and humiliated.
More problematic than the weak male lead performance is the direction of Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose background is in art photography. It shows: 50SOG is a movie that barely moves. The action plays out like a series of still-life photos of gorgeous, well-appointed sets filled with glass and metallic surfaces. Characters stand turgidly in these spaces and mouth silly lines. For a movie ostensibly about sex, 50SOG lacks energy, or even a pulse.
The whole thing is also absurdly portentous. Romance usually involves some smiling, but Christian only stares or scowls at Anastasia, who bites her lip and pouts in return. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect humor or levity in a BDSM flick, but 50SOG would be more bearable if it didn’t take itself so seriously.
All in all, the result is an interminably long, boring journey that culminates in one of the least suspenseful (and very confusing) cliffhangers in film history. The torpor is so overwhelming that by the time the movie’s over, the audience will feel like it’s endured an even worse beating than poor Anastasia.
But what, you may ask, does it all mean? You wouldn’t be alone, because 50SOG has inspired interpretations from a wide variety of perspectives (feminist, religious, conservative, leftist, and more; Mike D’Virgilio’s article in yesterday’s The American Culture provides a nice overview).
I believe the alarmist views are exaggerated. Hollywood has been dealing with BDSM subjects for a long time. For example, 9 ½ Weeks was made nearly 30 years ago, and its leads were genuine film stars of the time (Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger) rather than the relative no-names in 50SOG.
More importantly, 50SOG doesn’t glorify the BDSM lifestyle or portray it as liberating; far from it in fact. Christian Grey all but says he is drawn to kinky, dominant sex as a way of working out traumas from his early life. Anastasia ends the relationship and leaves him because he won’t address his problems directly. In a telling moment (both to the plot and as an illustration of 50SOG’s primitive vernacular), Christian admits his sexual tastes result from the fact that he is “fifty shades of f—ed up.”
Fundamentally, 50SOG is not that different from the Twilight series, albeit sexed up with some soft-core, R-rated action and nudity. The bondage activities are almost incidental to its central story of a naïve young girl trying to heal the soul of a wounded boy who only appears to be a monster, just as the vampires in Twilight only seem to be monsters. Anastasia wants to save Christian so that he can become the man he was meant to be, which is a standard theme of trite romance novels. For all its “edginess” and pretensions, 50SOG can’t escape the limitations of its genre.
And, believe it or not, the Twilight movies are better.