Movie Review: “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden
Sam Taylor-Johnson

It’s well established that “Fifty Shades of Grey” began life as fan fiction by a “Twilight” devotee who was frustrated with the lack of sex in the books, and that’s fair; there is but one sex scene in the entire series, after all. However, this married mother of two (!) didn’t just write about Bella and Edward (here named Ana and Christian) having sex: she wrote about them having rough sex, BDSM-type stuff that tries to present itself as a confident woman owning her sexuality, when in fact the sex is completely about him, and he is constantly looking for reasons to “punish” her. Christian Grey is basically the Patrick Bateman (“American Psycho”) of sex, to the point where “American Psycho” author Bret Easton Ellis saw so much of Patrick in Christian that he actually begged “Grey” author E. L. James for the right to write the film’s screenplay. She turned him down. That’s unfortunate; he might have made something watchable out of this.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a college senior who does her journalism major roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) a solid by doing an interview on her behalf when Kate gets the flu. The interviewee is Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a 27-year-old billionaire who is giving her school’s commencement speech. Ana is intimidated by Christian – yet conducts the most passive-aggressive interview in history – but something about Ana intrigues Christian. He visits her at the hardware store where she works, and later tracks her down at a bar after she drunk calls him to tell him off. She wakes up in his hotel room, and after a brief (and hilariously awkward) chat, it is clear that there is chemistry between them, and each wants to consummate the relationship.

However, Christian plays a different sport than Ana does. He doesn’t want a lover: he wants a submissive (honest to God quote from the movie: “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.”), and asks Ana to look over a lengthy contract that spells out the terms of their sexual relationship, unaware that Ana is a virgin. Once he discovers this, he softens his approach and gives her the loving first experience that girls wish for, but after that, it’s all business, and business is this: you will do what I want, when I want, or you will be punished. Ana refuses to sign the contract, though the two continue to see each other. They have lots of sex, he spanks and whips her, and despite his insistence that he is not a candy and flowers kind of guy, Ana thinks that this arrangement has the potential to blossom into something greater. Fool.

For a movie about bondage, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is not kinky, not even a little bit. The sex scenes in “Basic Instinct” are rawer and sexier than anything here, and as a result Christian comes off as the most lightweight dominant in the history of BDSM. He does, however, excel at being a first-class stalker and possessive nut job. Ana can’t even visit her mother on the other side of the country without him checking up on her. In fact, his wealth disguises the most disturbing element of the story: if Christian isn’t rich, this movie is “Sleeping with the Enemy,” with whips. Would anyone see that movie? (Answer: they wouldn’t.) There is a bad message being sent here, which is that it’s okay if a man is a loveless, abusive sociopath, as long as he’s rich and cute. The married mother of two who created this universe should know better.

God love Dakota Johnson for putting her career on the line by making this film, and maybe it’s the Stockholm Syndrome talking (trapped in a theater, unable to escape, slowly starting to sympathize with my captors), but I found myself liking her more and more as the film went on. The one smart plot piece of the story is that she’s a virgin. Without that, the rest of the story doesn’t make sense. She isn’t just deflowered by Christian: she’s sexually liberated, and it makes sense that someone with no experience might respond to Christian Grey the way she does. Jamie Dornan is going to get crushed for his performance here, as he is flat as a pancake, but it’s not all his fault. His character, as it’s written, has the charm of a toaster. There’s not much Dornan can do about that. Also, Danny Elfman did the score, and not a single note of it stood out. To say that this movie disappoints on a number of levels would be greatly understating the point.

If you’re going to make a movie out of a book like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” then go big, or go home. This film wants it both ways, and ends up disappointing everyone. It lacks both sex appeal and danger (the supposed draws of the BDSM lifestyle, yes?), which exposes Christian Grey’s flaws even more. It’s a movie about an abusive, one-sided relationship, and God help us, there are two more books in the series. (If they turn the final book into two movies, I will burn Hollywood to the ground.) It’s like “9 ½ Weeks,” only Kim Basinger comes back for more. Jesus.