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Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson  

Premise: An adaptation of the novel by E.L. James. College student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) begins an S&M romance with billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).

What Works: There is a lot to be said about the production design of Fifty Shades of Grey. Many of the sets and costumes of Christian’s spaces have an appropriately rigid and sterile look while Anastasia’s apartment and outfits tend to look messy but organic. Fifty Shades of Grey is also well shot. The cinematography is credited to Seamus McGarvey, who had also filmed World Trade Center, The Avengers, and 2014’s Godzilla. This picture has a lot of beautiful images such as the glittery cityscapes and the sterile interiors of Christian Grey’s offices and apartments. The one notable acting performance of Fifty Shades is provided by Dakota Johnson as Anastasia. The role is really a typical romantic female lead but Johnson does that pretty well. Despite the S&M aspects of this movie, Anastasia is more than a submissive and the movie is most engaging in the push and pull between Anastasia and Christian; the most interesting and most sexually charged scene of the entire picture is a fully clothed but dramatically lit business meeting in which the two leads negotiate the boundaries of their relationship.

What Doesn’t: There’s been some consternation in the press and on social media accusing Fifty Shades of Grey of romanticizing an abusive relationship. The film doesn’t do that. While the relationship between Anastasia and Christian isn’t exactly a healthy one, this film is really a conventional romantic story; it’s Pretty Woman with an occasional spanking and that is the ultimate source of its failure. The success of a romantic story like this is predicated on two things: a pair of would-be lovers that the audience wants to see get together and a tangible obstacle keeping them from doing that. Fifty Shades of Grey has neither. Dakota Johnson is well cast in her role but she has no romantic chemistry with co-star Jamie Dornan. Christian Grey is set up to be a mysterious Lord Byron type who is tortured by inner demons but could be redeemed by the love of a good woman. The character never achieves that mystery. Rather than channeling Edward Cullen of Twilight or Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman, Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey is much more like Patrick Bateman of American Psycho; he is a vacant pretty boy who has no interior life. But unlike Christian Bale’s performance in American Psycho, Jamie Dornan conveys none of the satirical self-awareness nor the deadpan humor. It is unclear whether the failure is Dornan’s fault or the result of a bad script in which no one behaves like a credible human being and everyone speaks with inane dialogue. Whatever the reason, Christian is not interesting at all and there is no reason to want to see him get together with Anastasia. As for an obstacle keeping them apart, the only thing doing that is Anastasia’s self-respect. Christian attempts to impress her by purchasing clothes and cars and taking her on helicopter rides, which all amount to a flagrant attempt to purchase her submission. She rightly sees that Christian is a jerk and so the real question that the movie poses is not about passion or about sexual discovery but whether this young woman wants to be this man’s sugar baby. That’s a weak premise for a romance. For most viewers, the real allure of Fifty Shades of Grey is the sex scenes. These moments are competently done but they are also too tame. This film should be the mainstream equivalent of Nymphomaniac or Secretary or even Zack and Miri Make a Porno but it’s never that transgressive. Everything about Fifty Shades of Grey is too restrained (and not in a good way) and the sexual moments are mild stimulations between long stretches of boredom.

Bottom Line: The novel Fifty Shades of Grey supposedly got a lot of readers hot and bothered but it’s unlikely that anyone watching this movie will get any kind of arousal at all. It’s a mediocre mainstream romance without compelling characters. It isn’t even satisfactorily smutty.

Episode: #530 (February 22. 2015)