Written in the most rudimentary ‘see Spot run’ vernacular to appeal to the middle-age frump hillbilly sect who clearly finds this sort of slap n’ tickle dreck mildly kinky, E.L. James Fifty Shades of Grey is the sort of publishing phenomenon that makes one cringe. That it has found a home in popular culture amongst the forty-something conclave of middle class housewives and unmarried secretaries, sweating at the steno pool, as a sort of ‘romance’ novella, cheaply erotic and frankly, jejune at best, and, even more deficient in its failure to titillate – unless, of course, one is functioning from the mindset of a navel-gazing fourteen year old only just begun to explore their own sexuality, speaks to a sort of collective cultural dissatisfaction with men in general. Clearly, too many are not performing up to snuff when the lights are out at home. But Christian Grey, the austere sadomasochist of this piece should hardly be their role model.
Interesting James has made him a billionaire. For there would be no other reason why any woman of any age should find Christian Grey anything except what he is: sick and twisted, fit for a good pepper spraying and kick in the crotch, before placing that all important 911 telephone call into authorities. Evidently, money cures all deviant predilections, or rather, most women’s opinions of such. If nothing else, feminist scholarship ought to have jumped all over this idiotic tale of a young, emotionally stunted and thoroughly bumbling ingénue turned out by her more experienced sex freak controller. The Picture of Dorian Gray it’s not. The portrait of one Christian Grey it seems to be, although we are told very little about this telecommunications mogul who has his finger on the pulse of the people, leaving more than a thumb print behind on some of the more amiable and willing glamazons who populate his uber-rich playground. What a bastard he is. And let us be fair in assessing that if any self-respecting woman who finds this character even remotely fascinating were to actually encounter such an animal in her daily passing, she would likely poo in her panties or cry bloody rape if such a proposition were made to her. So, let us simply set aside Fifty Shades of Grey as an erotic ‘romance’ novel. It’s not. Frankly, it’s not even good literature, much less a competent story!
Hollywood loves a phenomenon. And so, we have Fifty Shades of Grey (2014) – the movie; directed with the slickest élan by Sam Taylor-Johnson. It is rumored Taylor-Johnson clashed with E.L. James on practically every aspect regarding the making of this movie. If anything, he has at least given James’ turgid anecdote the visual patina of uber-glam, rain-soaked Vancouver (subbing in for Seattle) looking limpidly exhilarating. The film costars Jamie Dornan (who postures and poses in tight-fitting suits as though he has forgotten to remove the butt plug from his previous night’s exertions) and Dakota Johnson (think Anne Hathaway knock-off without the looks or talent) as the (choke!) iconic manipulator and his unsuspecting and rather hapless victim. She’s a college kid who keeps putting both feet in her mouth (kinky, only in a sort of metaphorical double-jointed/ambidextrous way) falling prey to this obsessed young lion who stalks such nimble-minded and scissor-legged gazelle, precisely because they lack the wherewithal to resist so charming a pig.
Christian Grey is nobody’s idea of Prince Charming, more like the beast from beauty and the like. Dornan is the right type to play this fetishistic creep; blonde, buff and beady-eyed; something not quite right about the man who, at least on the outside, can mimic the stud factor as an all-American rich kid still wet behind the ears. In fact, Anastasia refers to Christian as ‘clean’ when describing him to her roommate, Kate Kavanagh (Eloise Mumford). Kate ought to have taken the interview with Grey except she is suffering from a particularly transient head cold and sends Anastasia in her stead, armed with a notepad of the most perfunctory interview questions, and peppered with a few rudely obtrusive ones. Is he single? Is he gay? Does either of these silly school girls think any billionaire would suffer through their interrogation for a university newspaper? As we’ve already left clever-clever land in the rearview and are circling the semen and blood-soaked bowl a la Sweeney Todd, Christian pursues Ana to the hardware store where she works part-time. There, she receives ill-timed news from her mother, Carla (Jennifer Ehle) via cell phone she will be unable to attend her daughter’s graduation because her fourth husband, Bob (Dylan Neal) has just broken his foot golfing. How I wish more divorced parents would prioritize their life’s ambitions. Your kids come first. Your multiple sex/life partners a distant second.
Ana seemingly has only two friends; roomie, Kate and aspiring photographer, José (Victor Rasuk), and one overly protective co-worker, pickle-headed, Paul Clayton (Anthony Konechny), who has no quam about putting his meaty mitts on Ana in Christian’s presence to suggest something more to their work relationship. Having effectively isolated our heroine, already more vulnerable than a girl of her years ought to be, the Kelly Marcel screenplay wastes no time delving into the mechanics of a very awkward ‘cute meet’ between Christian and Ana. She wipes out in the foyer of his office (a most unglamorous sprawl that gets his attention) and badly mangles the interview (she even forgets to bring a pencil to write down his replies, necessitating his loaning her one of his own which she keeps as a memento and later fondles between her fingertips with the dull nub firmly pressed against her lips). Mediocre Freud 101, anyone?
Yet, despite her social inadequacies, Ana has little trouble referring to Christian as the well-dressed serial killer or intimidating and high-handed control freak. He admittedly likes things his own way. Figuring out Ana’s ‘thing’ will fill the bulk of the film’s remaining run time. If only Dornan and Johnson had more chemistry and less sex there might have been a nugget of intrigue to command our attention. But frankly, each delivers their lines with about as much mystery or excitement as a bad knock-knock joke; their respective pregnant pauses never augmenting a particularly fascinating bit of dialogue so much as to suggest some middling grunt standing off camera keeps dropping their cue cards. Whoops! What was I supposed to say? Oh, right. Moving on. And so, the narrative does – painfully – with Ana divulging far too much about herself. Christian’s growing infatuation to give Ana’s fun-pillows a naughty smack are kept under lock and key – literally – until she gets to know him better. He is the jealous type. He’s also into cable ties, long cords of rope and masking tape; everything a self-respecting handyman or sex freak needs for his Saturday night.
Ana is a green girl, easily swayed and pliable, qualities that make her simultaneously vulnerable yet appealing to Christian. She wants him desperately even before she knows what he is all about. Evidently, as an English major Ana has failed to study enough Shakespeare to know ‘he that smiles, may smile and also be a villain’…or share other partialities in the cirque du soliel of bedroom maneuvers that can – and will – expand more than Ana’s horizons, curl a young girl’s toes and set her rather mop-ish flock of hair on fire. Hence, when she drinks too much at a club to blow off steam after final exams, Ana’s brash rejection of Christian’s gift, (several first editions of Thomas Hardy novels) sends him into an alpha-male protective tizzy. Earlier he gave illusions to playing the gallant, pulling Ana back from the edge of a curb to avoid being sideswiped by an oncoming cyclist. But then something happened; a spark of fundamental humanity he proudly professed not to possess. What is it about this gawky and hapless adolescent that stirs his desire towards altruism?
We find out when José makes a pass, Christian intervenes and Ana throws up in his handkerchief before passing out in his arms. It must be love – and Tequila shots. In the realm of implausible fantasy romances, this one’s a humdinger. Really? Christian Grey: entrepreneur, man-about-town, richer than Midas, sporting an enviable walk-in closet of ill-tailored Armanis and enough money to turn half the world into his own whips n’ chains fantasyland…this deadly dull, mumbling no-nothing of a girl, with perpetually pouty lips and a pair of Lori Petty wounded eyes… this appeals to him as more than a disposable wham-bam he can leave for mortally wounded with a broken heart? Evidently so. Implausibly so, too.
One of the problems with Fifty Shades of Grey, the novel and the movie, is that it teeters on the very transparent and questionable wish fulfillment of its author, E.L. James; deliciously obtuse daydreams gleaned from a real desperate housewife, who clearly has put more than a hint of herself into these flawed notions about finding love at the end of a cat o nine tails. What her story requires is a good spank and thorough housecleaning to clear some of the addlepated cotton, hay and rags from its perverse deviation from Charles Perrault’s Cinderella. After awakening in this Prince’s castle (actually in his bed) Ana throws herself at Christian’s head, despite the fact he makes no illusions about not wanting ‘a romance’ from her. The ‘push me/pull you’ quality in their struggle to reconcile incongruent emotions and interests leads to some of the most awkward bits of dialogue in the movie. Christian’s tastes are ‘singular’. Okay. He refuses to touch Ana without her ‘written consent’. Uh…odd. He doesn’t make love. He…well…’f_cks – hard’ in his…um… ‘playroom’. See, now we’re getting into a gray area. Oh, right!
Time for Ellie Goulding’s pop sensation, ‘Love Me Like You Do’ accompanied by some dizzying aerial maneuvers over a fog-laden Seattle; Christian’s idea of a night on the town, dreamily photographed for maximum gloss and mind-numbing diversion. Christian introduces Ana to his playroom, complete with handcuffs and floggers, amongst other sundry sex-game paraphernalia. He also insists she sign a nondisclosure agreement; all this before realizing she is still a virgin. No convincing required, as Anna is out of her undies, broadminded and bound with one of Christian’s fine silk ties, wincing in sheer delight before the inevitable arrival of an unwelcomed intruder, Christian’s mama, Dr. Grace Trevelyan Grey (Marcia Gay Harden). We get a bit of fill-in-the-blanks backstory on Christian Grey; his seduction by one of mom’s closest friends when he was all of fifteen. He became this woman’s sex slave for six years. But now, the tables have turned and Christian is the dominant, still keeping in touch with the cougar who stole his youth and even considering her ‘a friend’.
In keeping with the generalized ‘sex without reprisals’ scenario presented in both the novel and this movie, Kate begins seeing Christian’s brother, Elliot (Luke Grimes), a dressed down, more mainstream horn-dog, who wastes no time engaging in some playful badinage with Ana’s laissez faire/throw caution to the wind roomie. As luck would have it, Ana proves she can be had for the price of a Mac computer, Christian emailing the legal contracts to their arrangement between the ‘dominant’ and the ‘submissive’; the latter basically agreeing to any and all sex acts deemed safe and pleasurable by the ‘dominant’. Legal-ease with a decided whiff of the profane, Ana finds the terminology almost as erotic as her ‘first time’ with Christian. Her second time is less flattering. After doing some internet research and deciding the part of a sexual piñata is not for her, Christian arrives unannounced to Ana’s apartment, binding her to the bed and giving her a good solid thrashing he would most likely consider his ‘soft touch’.
Ana now takes it upon herself to renegotiate the contract; no anal or vagina fisting or genital clamps, presumably because she’s done her homework. And yet, she still has to make inquiries about butt plugs? Dumb, silly, legal red tape: the kind likely to leave ligature marks on her wrists and ankles given half the chance and encouragement from our Mr. Grey. Alas, for a novice, our Miss Steele has learnt the quid pro quos of being an A-1 tease; listening to Christian’s description of his next preferred flagrante delicto, only to be cut off in the prime of his seduction by Ana, who insists on going home. At the post-graduation celebration, Christian meets Ana’s father. But by now director, Taylor-Johnson appears to be merely going through the motions of a perfunctory setup, intermittent bouts of normalcy bookended by ever-increasing amounts of flesh-exposing erotica. Let’s face it; you haven’t paid your two bits to see an intellectual melodrama about star-crossed lovers. And a good thing too, because Fifty Shades of Grey is about as far removed from a good melodrama as one might expect. It also happens to be a monumental snore, basically a middling palaver with some spliced in nudie shots and a few sexual teasers.
Some more drama follows: Ana announcing at a dinner party at Christian’s family home she intends to visit her mother in Georgia the following afternoon. Director, Taylor-Johnson plays up the wounded animal syndrome herein, a cheesy effort to humanize Dornan’s cold and calculating sexual sadist, who confides he had ‘a rough start in life’ and allows Ana to break one of his cardinal rules by letting her touch him first. What began as a fractured Cinderella story has now transgressed into Beauty and the Beast territory; Christian unwilling to allow Ana even a moment’s separation. He stalks her to Savanah; then, hastily whisks her back to Seattle after a business crisis throws the proverbial wrench in his billion-dollar empire. We enter the ‘lover’s quarrel’ segment of the piece; Ana, desperate to understand and help Christian through this obvious tough time; he, unwilling to allow her that special glimpse into his more depraved self for fear it would change everything about their relationship. Interesting, he should consider it thus now when, at the start, there was no mention of anything beyond a mutually consented upon slap and tickle. As punishment for her inquisitive mind, Christian beats Ana with a whip in his playroom. Afterward, she elects to end their affair; the penultimate montage of images suggesting something else is brewing in the works – regrettably, the sequel: Fifty Shades Darker.
Fifty Shades of Grey is hardly a movie I would want to see again, if at all, for that matter. Its narrative is not compelling and its principals are less people suffering from some conflicting passion than tragically mismatched and strictly ‘by the numbers’ cardboard cutouts; persons we’d rather not know, not for their fundamentally perverse notions about love and sexual conquest, but rather because for all their upwardly mobile affluence they are fairly dull to be around. Christian Grey: poor little rich boy, turned out by mama’s cougar. Let the nipple rings and wrist harnessed blood-letting begin. Except that it doesn’t, the movie walking a censorship tightrope to ensure its ‘R’ rating. Interestingly, Fifty Shades of Grey went through multiple permutations before it reached the screen; the original choices for Christian and Anastasia (Robert Patterson and Kristen Stewart) dumped; the role of the conflicted Mr. Grey announced with Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam. Conflicting schedules eventually forced Hunnam out of the running, director Taylor-Johnson pursuing Ryan Gosling, Theo James and Scott Eastwood for the part before settling on Jamie Dornan.
In the end, this proved a bad compromise; Dornan about as capable as his costar, Dakota Johnson – which isn’t saying much. They’re well suited to each other as mediocre young talent desperate to break into the big time. But neither strikes a chord of excitement with the audience. There’s really no point belaboring any of it further. Fifty Shades of Grey is marginally better as a motion picture than a novel, only because Taylor-Johnson has given us slick and stylish visuals to look at, exquisitely photographed by cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey. Regrettably, slick visuals alone, mostly shot in and around perpetually damp and glistening Vancouver, do not a great movie make. What is lacking herein is the moments of realization, of self-preservation, of intimacy turned asunder by the startling revelation this isn’t going to work out for all the right and wrong reasons. We get none of this suspense in Fifty Shades of Grey; in essence, a sort or uber-raunchy Thomas Crown Affair with frenetically edited scenes of penetration thrown in.
Apart from the porn industry, sex in ‘legitimate’ cinema has always been something of a tough nut to crack (pun intended). Too much gratuitous nudity and one begins to sincerely feel as though the movie is talking down to its audience; merely filling run time with salaciously rendered moments of sweaty, heart-palpitating conquest. Too little and the audience feels cheated. This is, after all, Fifty Shades of Grey, not a Disney live-action remake of Bambi. There’s enough sex, most of it artfully photographed in half shadow, to offer tantric stirrings of sweat-soaked lust. Twenty-somethings will likely be able to relate to Ana’s drunken revelry and get off on the film’s notion of cheaply made erotica. Tits and ass – will it never fail to sell? But on the whole, Fifty Shades of Grey offers little beyond the straight tease to stir the mind, heart or even the loins to distraction. It’s just a mediocre and sad little tale, sand-blasted of all its more subliminal heavy breathing, like Ana’s initial description of Christian Grey – too clean to be believable. You won’t be drained by this experience - or stimulated by it either. So, what’s the point? No cold shower required.
Whoever is responsible for timing this release with Mother's Day ought to be flogged and not in such a way as to enjoy the experience. If you have a mother to whom this movie would seem like the ultimate gift idea, I sincerely feel very sorry for you. Kudos, however, to Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray. It is predictably A-1; a sumptuous visual feast in 1080p, perfectly capturing the film’s glossy visuals. You’ll love what’s here because it shows off a full spectrum of color, then endless barrage of aerial overhead shots of Seattle, Vancouver and Georgia looking razor-sharp and very crisp. Film grain looks natural enough and contrast is bang on. The 5.1 DTS audio is likewise a model of perfection, dialogue natural sounding, the pop-tune infested backdrop giving the speakers a work out. Blu-ray exclusives include the ‘unrated’ edition of the movie; basically more of the same with a few minor – if unexpected – plot twists best left undiscussed. Universal has also tacked on a few junkets meant to promote the sequel more than anything else; with snippets and sound bites from the author, director, cast and crew; everyone discussing the movie as though it were Gone With the Wind. Hey folks: you made a movie – and not a very good one at that. Have a round of group hugs and get over yourselves! This isn’t one for the ages or even one to adequately pass the time. Bottom line: pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)