Fifty Shades of Grey

2 Stars

Really? This is the story that titillates so many American readers? How…sad and boring.

I could make a bunch of jokes about Fifty Shades of Grey‘s origins as Twilight fan fiction, but aside from this mention, I won’t. If anything, Fifty Shades of Grey shows how America’s puritanical approach to sex in general takes a concept that could be interesting and drains it of anything to hold that interest.

Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Anastasia Steele, a shy English major who interviews commencement speaker and wealthy businessman Christian Grey. In spite of Anastasia’s awkwardness, Christian is immediately taken with Anastasia. He attempts to woo her with your standard rich-man methods: first edition books, a fixed computer, a helicopter ride, etc. He makes it clear, though, that he’s not looking for romance. Instead, his “tastes are very singular” – namely, he’s into BDSM, and he wants Anastasia to be his submissive.

It’s a joke, of course. For all the attention played to kinky sex in the series, love is the center of this world. Or at least, something masquerading as love. Their takes on intimacy just differ. She wants to go on dates and spend the night cuddled together. He wants to have sex that’s only kinky to him and every housewife who’s never actually partaken in BDSM.

Look, maybe it’s because being queer comes with a certain amount of kink already built in, but very little that Christian does is all that arousing. He has an immaculate room filled with gear, but when he uses any of it, it’s rarely more than perfunctory. The closest the film comes to anything that’s more extreme is during a “business meeting” Anastasia calls to discuss a contract Christian has drafted, where she expresses her discomfort with certain items. The scene, by the way, is the sexiest one in the film, and it’s one of the few where there’s purely tension between Anastasia and Christian.

Plenty of book adaptations have convinced people, quite reasonably, that a story told in one form won’t translate to another form easily. To give the film some credit, Fifty Shades manages to actually improve on its source material. One of the film’s biggest deviations from the source material is in perspective. The book is told from Anastasia’s perspective, which means readers get a lot of awkward verbiage like “Holy crap.” Outside of one “holy cow,” we’re spared that in the film. Instead, Anastasia is given a bit of a personality, most of which is provided by Dakota Johnson. Johnson’s a talented comedic actress, and she imbues Anastasia with a spark that kicks in after a drunken phone call to Christian. From that scene on, Anastasia has enough force to make her more than a Bella Swan knockoff.

The same can’t be said for Christian Grey, unfortunately. Johnson wasn’t given a lot to work with, but Jamie Dornan has even less here. Christian is supposed to not be interested in a romantic relationship, but it seems like he’s not interested in anything most of the time. That includes any of his supposed sexual interests. One of Dornan’s biggest problems is that he has a hard time maintaining an American accent, and it seems like he’s more focused on trying to maintain that accent than maintaining interest with Johnson.

The film isn’t exactly helped by the approach director Sam Taylor-Johnson takes with the material, either. While there’s certainly a talented crew involved, and they do appear to be trying to elevate the material, they may have gone a bit overboard. A certain level of trashiness is implied by the material, and everything in the film is so…tasteful, to the point of being clinical. I get that, with a project this popular, there were likely demands for an R-rated film instead of an NC-17, but a push for that rating may have made a difference.

Fifty Shades of Grey could have certainly been worse, and I’m sure that plenty of people expecting a complete debacle will be surprised (pleasantly or not). But it doesn’t work in its final form, still. How much of that is inherent to the source material, or from author E.L. James’ demands, I can’t say (although, having read how James and Taylor-Johnson differed in their desires for the film’s ending, Taylor-Johnson’s unused word of choice would have been far more interesting). But we’re going to be subjected to two more of these films. While I doubt E.L. James gives a flying fuck what anyone else thinks at this point, maybe she should listen to other people next time. She’ll still make a lot of money, but maybe she won’t have to trade in her name for it. Or maybe that’s her own form of self-imposed sadomasochism.

Fifty Shades of Grey • Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language) • Runtime: 110 minutes • Genre: Drama • Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden • Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson • Writer: Kelly Marcel • Distributor: Universal/Focus
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