By Jake Nevins
If you’re like me, you entered “Fifty Shades of Grey” a stranger to the franchise but aware of its most prurient pursuits. My ego precludes my ability to open the book, for excerpts suffice in displaying its comic eroticism (and distinctly anti-feminist ideals), but I was more than happy to attend the midnight screening, wide-eyed and prepared for a couple hours of gratuitous sex interspersed with minimal plot-advancement.
I can’t say it lived up to the hype, but the film is not without moments that elicit audible whimpers. From a critical standpoint, one must understand that “Grey” was somewhat doomed from the start, inherently grappling with its desire to appeal to the masses while staying true to author E.L. James’ wildly promiscuous imagination. The two are in direct tension, and although battalions of middle-aged women would’ve come to see the film either way, director Sam Taylor-Johnson had to be quite persnickety in choosing which sex-romps would manifest on screen. There is something to be said for artistry and then another thing to be said for gluttony — the film’s success depended entirely on cementing itself somewhere between the two.
We begin with an interview, seemingly innocuous, conducted by the collegiate Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), an English-Lit major in puritanical cardigans. She carries herself with the poise of a pubescent high-schooler in public-speaking class, but since we know what’s to come, it’s oddly intriguing. She’s on assignment with the school newspaper to interview Christian Grey, the brooding billionaire bachelor whose back muscles protrude from his suit. His scapulas are begging to get out, but we’ll have to wait another 40 minutes before the slightest pinch of skin. He tells her he “exercises control in all things” with an inanimacy that presages two hours of stagnant, insoluble drivel.
Ana leaves and Christian follows her around in a bevy of cars almost as beautiful as he himself. When he shows up at the appliance store where she works and asks for rope and cable-wire, you know things are about to heat up.
The first sex-scene arrives and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, after which we pant, gnaw, moan and kick, wondering why this film wasn’t released in IMAX. Thanks to the genies in the editing room, there is nothing particularly pronographic to speak of; just nipples, pubes, and buttcracks galore. The two fornicate and Johnson bites her lip a lot because Christian just won’t kiss her. Sex Scene 1 ends without much ground-breaking deviance and the two appear sexually if not emotionally harmonious.
But wait! Ana has to sign a contract. It’s impossibly unromantic and epicly misogynistic, but she reviews Christian’s requirements, does a little research on BDSM and appears horrified at its implications. Although Christian sends her a laptop and a car while taking her inside several different aerial contraptions, Ana is a tough cookie who is not quite ready to be fucked, flogged, and flagellated. Who knew one would be resistant to Mr. Grey’s desires? Definitely not Christian; her suggestion that they nix anal and vaginal fisting from the love-making repertoire elicits visible disappointment from the dominant, which, by the way, is an epithet entirely incongruous with Dornan’s disposition. He is painstakingly buttoned-up and looks uncomfortable when performing sex acts to which he’s devoted an entire room in his luxe penthouse. He is not so much a dominant as a handsome caucasian boy with pseudo-sadistic desires and the bank account to support a leather-shrouded “playroom.”
Plot progression is rendered nonexistent from here on out, but a few Beyoncé-backed sex scenes provide sufficient fun. Perhaps most titillating is when Grey drips white wine in Ana’s mouth and runs an ice-cube down her darkly-lit torso; unfortunately, though, it’s followed by an utterly lethargic display of what is supposed to be “rough sex.”
Throughout, Johnson continues to be the engine that propels the film; her portrayal of Ana is wonderfully nuanced and ameliorates the vacuity of her co-stars, one of which is Rita Ora, which is just so funny in itself. The dom-sub scenes slowly intensify, but one’s shock hinges entirely on the extent to which they’ve dabbled in the BDSM-arts. I’d imagine these moments are sadly underwhelming for the quotidian whip-crackers in the audience. Perhaps most interesting is the tension between Ana’s romanticized, prelapsarian values and Christian’s forthright opposition to even the slightest showing of emotion. More so than the sex, which can only be replicated in so many box office-approved ways before becoming sadly anticlimactic, the friction created by Ana and Christian’s contradictory notions of their arrangement sets up a not-so-gloomy landscape for the sequel. Hint, hint: this issue is far from reconciled at film’s end.
All in all, “Fifty Shades” only half achieves what it sets out to do. Its most impish moments are sexy and look better than whatever transpires in the average American bedroom, but they are mild and devoid of the boundary-pushing salacity suggested by Grey’s contractual stipulations. This is expected, and perhaps it’s unfair to consider the film’s appropriateness a pejorative given the difficult cinematic landscape, but it’s an inevitable critique relative to the book from which the movie spawned. Taylor-Johnson can only do so much with a film that, first and foremost, depends on the sexual and emotional rapport of its actors. This is not to say that Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan don’t work well together. It’s simply that the former imbues the film with an intriguing subtext, while the latter, albeit fun to look at, is temperamentally soporific, a convincing billionaire/model/commencement-speaker, but an unconvincing sadist.
Perhaps the book’s reputation hurts the film, because the two seem to have different ideas. E.L. James is trying to help you get off, while Sam Taylor-Johnson is offering up a cinematic aphrodisiac of sorts. Still, though, there is something to be said for “Fifty Shades of Grey’s” existence, for the sheer fact that it erodes the antiquated stigma around experimental sex — although one realizes that the movie needs far more than a pretty face and a ball-gag to push the envelope.
Jake Nevins is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.