More like three shades of “Meh.”
The long-awaited, highly anticipated, much-discussed film adaptation of the first segment of E L James’ inexplicably popular “Fifty Shades” trilogy is a tedious exercise in dramatic wheel-spinning that doesn’t have the courage to explore the darkest elements of the characters and doesn’t have the originality to stand on its own merits.
Basically, they made a lousy, mid-2000s-era Katherine Heigl romance with a handful of explicit sex scenes spliced throughout the familiar clichés.
This is the kind of movie where the lead character sits on the edge of the bed, never once looking at his lover as he finally reveals the deepest secret that explains who he is — and guess what, when he finally turns around, she’s been asleep all along.
Fidget and sigh.
Out of a sense of pop culture obligation, I read “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which was not particularly well written but at least had a certain pulpy, randy, page-turning quality. In the hands of director Sam Taylor-Johnson, the movie is tepid, slow-moving and maddeningly repetitive. How many times does Anastasia have to ask Christian why he won’t sleep in the same bed with her when he’s been telling her again and again AND AGAIN he doesn’t do romance?
For those who don’t know the story: Late-blooming college senior Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson) interviews the mysterious 20-something billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the school newspaper. Sparks are ignited and fireworks ensue — but Christian doesn’t believe in traditional romance. Instead, he wants Anastasia to sign a contract in which she will agree to be the “Submissive” and he will be the “Dominant.” From that point, it’s a constant tug of war, with Anastasia trying to reach Christian’s heart, and Christian trying to get Anastasia to sign the contract, with many an interlude in Christian’s “play room,” which is filled with bondage devices, whips and chains.
So it’s “Pretty Woman” with harnesses and spanking instead of a trip to Rodeo Drive.
The problems begin with the casting. Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) actually has a spark of talent, and she owns a couple of terrific moments, e.g., when Anastasia drunk-dials the hot-and-cold Christian and imitates his inconsistent treatment of her. Johnson is a pretty girl, though not a conventional movie-star beauty, which fits the character of Anastasia, an attractive but socially awkward and confidence-lacking bookworm who remains a virgin through her senior year in college.
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey is an unmitigated disaster. His opening move in nearly every scene is to pose as if he just stepped out of the display window of a high-end men’s fashion store, and his line readings cover the gamut from balsa to oak to pine to mahogany. Whether Christian is saying, “Anastasia, you have a beautiful body,” “I don’t do romance,” or the instantly legendary, “I’m fifty shades of f—– up!,” it’s a shallow, one-note performance.
I know: Christian Grey is SUPPOSED to be a closed-off, robotic character who can find pleasure only when dominating young, impressionable women. But that seems only a few steps away from “American Psycho,” and yet I never believed this guy as the head of a multi-billion-dollar corporation and I certainly didn’t believe him in the scenes when he’s supposed to be getting his kicks by physically and emotionally humiliating Anastasia. He’s a boor and a bore.
There are a few moments that are pretty shocking for a mainstream American film, as when Anastasia matter-of-factly reads through the Dominant-Submissive contract out loud and makes Christian cross off a number of the more hardcore activities. And there’s certainly a lot of nudity.
But even as Christian keeps telling Ana he doesn’t do romance, “Fifty Shades of Grey” constantly references the Romantic Movie Playbook.
Let me count just some of the ways:
• Post-coital morning scene in which she wears his shirt and cooks him breakfast? Check.
• Comedic relief dinner scene where he takes her to meet his family? Check.
• Wisecracking, concerned roommate for her, and ne’er do well brother for him? Check.
• Helicopter ride? Check. (We also get a glider sequence as well. They’re taking flight, literally and metaphorically! Again!)
• He sends her thoughtful gifts with handwritten notes? Check.
• She gets up in the middle of the night and of course he’s awake, and they have a meaningful conversation? Check.
How is any of this edgy? How is any of this different from a hundred other movie romances?
On a few rare occasions, “Fifty Shades” reminds us we’re watching the story of a deeply disturbed man who will put his girlfriend over his knee and spank her like a child when she rolls her eyes at him — and a young woman who is smart, sweet, curious about the world, and well-loved by her family, and yet willingly enters into this man’s twisted world.
Then it’s time to get back to the conventional stuff. If only once Christian Grey had demonstrated even the slightest sense of personality. How can you have your own personal helicopter and not say to your date at some point, “GET TO THE CHOPPER!”