Are you curious?
Make no mistake about it: Fifty Shades of Grey is a very bad film. I say this not because I’m attempting to curry favor with the critical community at large, most of whom rejected the movie when it was released earlier this year. I say this not to pile on to the book (unread by me), which is very commercially successful but not particularly well respected. I say this not because I went into the movie looking to dislike it despite suspecting it would not be for me. I say this because I have seen the movie and it is not good. It is a bad script badly made into a bad film.
Based on the insanely popular bestseller by E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, 21 Jump Street), a virginal grad students who, though a series of convoluted circumstances, winds up interviewing Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, The Fall), a successful businessman with his very own company. But Christian is alone, because he is dark and mysterious but so, so handsome and sexy. He and Anastasia share an immediate attraction and slowly being a traditional relationship — you know, the kind where he buys you a car and you tell him you’re a virgin and he refuses to spend the night with you but tells you he’s into S&M and that if you want to continue dating you have to sign a contract agreeing to very specific terms regarding what is expected both in and out of the bedroom. It’s a fairy tale love story!
Here’s the thing. The film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey really does treat this material like a fairy tale. To say that it is a high school girl’s fantasy of romance is unfair to high school girls; this one maybe maxes out at age 11 or 12. This is especially distressing because it wants to deal with some real adult content when it comes to sexuality, only it’s unwilling to confront what any of it really means. For a movie marketed towards women, written by a woman and directed by a woman (Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose only previous film is the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy), this movie is stunningly anti-woman. Yes, I know its defenders will suggest that it is a movie about a woman ceding control to a man but regaining it through self-discovery. That’s a line. This is a movie about a woman who falls in love with a man immediately because he is handsome and rich and enters into an abusive relationship (and I’m not talking about the BDSM) from which she gets nothing but a few material things in return. Best case scenario is that she’s going to change or “fix” a broken man, itself an outdated and sexist idea.
Besides, Fifty Shades of Grey won’t allow Christan Grey to actually be broken. He has to be a sex symbol — the cover of a romance novel updated for 2015 values. An actual adult movie about sexual obsession and control has already been made. It’s called 9 1/2 Weeks. A movie about the psychology of a character entering into a BDSM relationship with a dominant has already been made. It’s called Going Under. A really great movie has been made about a woman who discovers she’s into BDSM, enters in to a consensual relationship with a businessman (they’re always businessmen) and retains a sense of self and power the entire way through. It’s called Secretary. Any one of these movies is way more worth your time than Fifty Shades of Grey.
There is an interesting idea at the heart of the sex contract — that relationships are essentially a series of negotiations until both parties meet at a place at which they are both satisfied. Removing the actual sex part and turning the whole thing into a business arrangement could make for an interesting commentary on contemporary relationships. Fifty Shades of Grey only stumbles onto these things by accident. It is a movie that can’t recognize a good idea when it has one and instead uses the contract hook as a means to an end — a flirtation on the way to a storybook romance. The filmmakers are so determined to make the movie into a love story that they won’t acknowledge it represents the death of romance.
Some may find the movie erotic. I did not. However, as Gene Siskel used to say, it is impossible to argue with people about what is funny and what is sexy — we all have our own ideas and things to which we respond. There is sex in the movie, but it is of the late-night HBO variety. Dakota Johnson is asked to quiver and moan at the slightest touch, and it’s more embarrassing than hot. The S&M stuff is approached in a way that makes me think no one involved has the slightest understanding or experience with this kind of sex. I don’t either, but even I can spot a phony. Anastasia gets tickled with a feather and has her butt spanked, and that’s the extent of this movie’s transgressive sex. The most taboo thing that happens is a four-line discussion about fisting, which is really only shocking because it takes place in a movie that has grossed over $500 million.
Back to Dakota Johnson. She received most of the movie’s positive press when it was released in February, and rightly so — she is easily the best thing about the movie. Johnson is the only person involved with the film that approaches any of this as an actual human. She laughs at things that are ridiculous and seems embarrassed by things that are embarrassing. She turns Anastasia Steele into a person where there doesn’t seem to be one on the page. She receives no help from Jamie Dornan, who gives one of the flattest and stiffest (no pun intended) performances in a major Hollywood film I’ve ever seen. He’s like a kid acting in a high school play, delivering every line in his best serious grown up voice and showing every emotion on his face. I know there was difficulty casting the role — at least one actor signed on and dropped out (the right call) — but Dornan was not where they should have stopped searching. This is a part that requires a Michael Fassbender to make it work. The material would still suck, but his performance would have convinced us a lot of it doesn’t.
The good news is that Universal’s Blu-ray release of Fifty Shades of Grey is very attractive — so much so that you’ll want to bring it home to your play room and tickle it with a peacock feather (but nothing more than that, because then you might have to actually confront an alternate form of sexuality and we can’t have that in our movie about an alternate form of sexuality). The 2.40:1 framed, AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is rich with detail and holds steady blacks and natural color reproduction throughout. It is a practically flawless transfer. The lossless 5.1 audio track is equally strong, offering clear dialogue, decent atmosphere and a good balance of the frequent pop songs on the soundtrack.
Included as part of the Blu-ray is an “unrated” cut of the film that runs about three minutes longer. Most of that extra running time is comprised of the ‘alternate ending,’ which extends a few minutes beyond the theatrical version’s terrible, abrupt blackout while still being every bit as abrupt and terrible — possibly more so. There are a number of interviews and featurettes, most of them EPK-style promotional pieces, profiling the actors and the characters. There’s also a behind-the-scenes piece, an interview with author E.L. James and a brief featurette in which participants (including a “technical consultant”) talk about the BDSM aspects despite the fact that the movie doesn’t actually deal with any of that in a real way. There are two music videos, some behind-the-scenes footage of one of the videos (shot by director Sam Taylor-Johnson) and, most offensively, a collection of photographs compiled in a 360-degree tour of Christian Grey’s apartment. This is where the movie’s heart really lies — in the shiny surfaces and the wealthy lifestyle. Boy, that Christian Grey has it all, doesn’t he? Let’s all agree to be his sex slave.
Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t so much a book-turned-movie as it is a phenomenon, so of course it made half a billion dollars. And of course there will be a sequel, because it’s part of a trilogy despite the fact that there isn’t enough story here for one movie, let alone three. Our current creative climate dictates that everything be a trilogy. I would hope enough people saw the movie and realized it is terrible that the sequel will be less financially successful. But, then, I thought the same thing about the first Twilight film — it’s bad enough that the series should have ended there — and those movies only got more popular as they went along. So I guess we’re set for two more movies of boring people being boring together. You’ll have to let me know if they get better. I won’t be seeing them. I’ll just give myDVD of Secretary another spin. Now that’s a movie.
The safe word is yellow, right? Yellow. Yellow yellow yellow.