The hotly anticipated adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey may have burned up the box office during Valentine’s Day weekend, but this movie is just as cold as the sub-zero temperatures we’ve been facing this long, snowy winter.
Take the movie’s lead, Dakota Johnson. She’s not only the offspring of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, but the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, an actress who knew a thing or two about looking sexy while being menaced. Johnson spends nearly a fifth of this film’s running time without clothing, and although her nubile form is certainly admired by director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s camera, down to the light hair that’s glimpsed on her legs (a nice touch that no male director would have allowed), nudity hasn’t been this unerotic since Demi Moore shed her clothes as a single mother/stripper in 1996’s Striptease.
But Johnson’s virginal Anastasia Steele is no trailer park dweller. We’re aware that Ana is better than that because she makes a point of mentioning her 4.0 GPA to her under-the-weather college roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) before filling in for the aspiring journalist by interviewing Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the commencement speaker at the girls’ upcoming graduation.
But before she can enter the offices of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc., the dowdily dressed Ana trips. Lying on the ground, she looks up, her eyes widening as she gets her first glimpse of Christian, 27-year-old billionaire. During their subsequent chat, she asks him what he does outside of his busy work schedule. His cryptic answer? “Physical pursuits.”
Naturally, it’s not long before Christian shows up at her part-time job as a clerk in a hardware store, where he’s come looking for rope, tape and cable ties. Ana wonders aloud if he’s a serial killer. If only. Although Dornan is best known for his role as a serial killer who leaves a collection of corpses around Belfast in the BBC series The Fall, he’s the real stiff here.
Taking her out for coffee after, Christian asks Ana if she’s a romantic. “I’m an incurable one,” she answers. “I have to be. I’m an English major.” After he finishes interviewing her, he concludes, “I’m not the man for you,” and it’s hard to argue with him, since Dornan and Johnson’s onscreen chemistry is practically nonexistent.
Nevertheless, Johnson has comic chops—though this film isn’t as hilarious as I’d hoped for, so those chops are fairly wasted. Ana gets a bit wasted herself, celebrating her impending graduation in a bar with friends and drunk-dialing Christian—a scene that proves that this story was cobbled together by a 51-year-old. After all, what college-aged girl would be caught dead phoning anyone these days? It’s a texting culture, and author E.L. James would know this if she were interested in capturing believable human interactions, rather than presenting a dominant/submissive relationship that would make actual BDSM practitioners turn red—not from a good spanking, but from embarrassment.
Even though he lives in Seattle, Christian somehow locates the bar in Vancouver, Washington, arriving just in time to save Ana from the unwanted advances of her friend José (Victor Rasuk), a barely seen stand-in for Twilight’s third-wheel werewolf.
Confused? Don’t be. James’ trilogy of books started out as Twilight fan-fiction, back when she was going by the online nom de plume “Snowqueen’s Icedragon.” And her writing sits at exactly the level you’d expect from such a pen name.
As a film, though, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t only a pale imitation of that other trilogy based on best-selling books; it also can’t hold any candle wax to a movie like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls—another sexual romp, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Aside from a cheeky contract negotiation scene that finds the two leads seated at opposite ends of a conference table as they discuss taboo terms like “anal fisting,” there’s nothing in Taylor-Johnson’s picture that approaches the glorious level of camp like the hot tub-set thrash-fucking in Verhoeven’s trash-cinema classic.
Back at the bar, Ana thanks Christian’s chivalry with barf on his thousand-dollar shoes. Passing out in his arms, she awakes in his bed the next morning, nearly naked, wondering why she’s there.
“Because I’m incapable of leaving you alone,” he says, standing in a bedroom that’s bigger than most people’s entire homes.
“So don’t,” responds the clearly smitten virgin.
“I don’t do romance,” says the man with mysterious burn marks on his chiseled abs. “My tastes are very…singular.”
They’re also remarkably tepid. After seducing her with rides in his helicopter and a glider stolen wholesale from the 1968 and 1999 versions of The Thomas Crown Affair, he eventually brings Ana to his playroom, locked away in his manse and filled with a vast assortment of whips, chains, handcuffs and those hardware store purchases.
“You’re a sadist?” Ana asks, and the actress can barely keep a straight face—which is preferable to the stern, constipated-looking expression that Dornan wears throughout. “I’m a dominant,” he tells her. “If you please me, I’ll reward you. If not, I’ll punish you.”
Nice (but unsmiling) guy that he is, Christian also lets her know that she’s “free to leave at any time.” If only viewers had that option. With film adaptations of James’ second and third volumes—Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed—already announced, Christian Grey will be punishing audiences for a long time to come.
Fifty Shades of Grey *1/2
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Max Martini, Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden. Written by Kelly Marcel, based on the novel by E.L. James. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. At Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, West Newton and in the suburbs.