Wednesday, February 18, 2015

REVIEW: Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey

BOTTOM LINE: Not good, exactly, but far better than what I was expecting.

Let's be honest: Fifty Shades of Grey, the film of E.L. James's blockbuster BDSM-flavored romance novel, was never going to be the sex-filled fantasia its most hardcore fans desired. It was also probably never going to be the so-bad-it's-good camp classic nearly everyone else was hoping for. All hope of either of those vanished the second a major studio (Universal) picked up the rights. Granted, it didn't have to be this way - anyone with eyes could see that the book had sold tens of millions of copies and it would still be a huge hit if the MPAA had slapped it with the dreaded NC-17 rating. It possibly would have been an even bigger hit, since it would have become even more of an "event" - the first NC-17 film to receive a wide release since Showgirls. But this is America, and Universal is a major corporation, so again: That was NEVER going to happen (Showgirls, if you'll remember, was a notorious flop). And as for camp, that probably only would have happened if John Waters had been hired to direct, which would have been interesting, but again, NEVER going to happen.

So the best audiences could reasonably hope for was a film that split the difference between a super-faithful adaptation and a knowing, wink-wink campy version. Which, shockingly, is mostly what the film delivers. Mostly, this is due to the performance of Dakota Johnson in the lead role of Anastasia Steele*. Johnson is, frankly, a revelation in the role (and I say this as a huge fan of her previous biggest project, the adorable short-lived Fox sitcom, Ben & Kate), providing the film with huge (completely intentional) laughs in her portrayal of the initially awkward and increasingly more self-possessed Ana. In the book, Ana is a drip, but Johnson makes a full-bodied human being, teasing humor out of every line she can in often unexpected ways, especially in the film's centerpiece scene, the late-night "business meeting" Ana arranges with Christian to review the Dominant/submissive contract he has prepared for her to sign.

Another note about that scene: I hope it will stop the brigade of people calling Fifty Shades "anti-feminist" or "anti-woman" or whatever. Sam Taylor-Johnson's direction and Kelly Marcel's script both bring out what was mostly subtext in the book, and what is the dirty little secret of BDSM relationships: It's really the "submissive" who has all the power. In this case, that's Ana. Not Christian. He may be the one using the riding crops and floggers (and I won't deny that there is history and subtext and all of that in images of women being bound, blindfolded, and hit by men, even for mutual sexual pleasure), but it's Ana who drives everything - it's Ana who tells Christian exactly what she is and is not okay with, Ana is the one who strings him along and makes him wait despite his "not playing fair" in her words (with the hotness and expensive gifts) and ultimately, it's Ana who shuts everything down when she realizes this is not something she's okay with. It's also important to note that the film is mostly focused on HER pleasure, not his.

Of course, that may be because Jamie Dornan is as dull as dishwater as Christian Grey. He brings good intensity and an intriguing peek behind the curtain during the scenes in Christian's playroom, but for the entire rest of the film, he's a blank space. This could be intentional - providing the audience a space to project their fantasy man onto Christian, or a set-up for scenes coming up in the inevitable sequels where Christian really starts opening up - but it does the character a disservice, rendering his chiseled physique and slightly chivalrous manners the only likable things about him.

The other thing to note about Fifty Shades of Grey - the book and the film - is that it was never really erotica. It's a romance with BDSM added for flavor. It follows all the standard romance tropes: a shy, virginal girl, a slightly mysterious bad-boy billionaire who "doesn't do romance" but shows enough romantic tendencies around said virginal girl to make her think she can change him, and a courtship involving mutual chasing, expensive gifts, and of course, lots of steamy sex. Taylor-Johnson perhaps errs to much on the side of romance, though, as the sex scenes are your standard Hollywood slickness - boobs, bush, and butts all make appearances, but God forbid any balls! - all tastefully lit and edited and overly scored. Not that the sex scenes aren't mostly effective, but there's nothing here that you haven't seen before, and when the film goes to such lengths to set up Christian's playroom as a place of forbidden pleasures and pain, it's weird when nothing that happens there feels particularly dangerous or exotic.

But, again, it's quite likely that this was the best we could ever hope for from this film. And while it might have been fun to see what NC-17 heights Lars von Trier, say, or Pedro Almodovar (or hell, maybe even Madonna), would have taken this property, that was never going to happen. This is what we got, and maybe it's enough that we got was groundbreaking: A mainstream BDSM-flavored romance written and directed by women, about a young woman's awakening, both sexual and otherwise. While it may not be great cinema, it certainly entertains, and I'm going to consider that a win.

*According to Taylor-Johnson in this Hollywood Reporter interview, all the actresses auditioning for Anastasia had to read a four-page monologue from, of all things, Ingmar Bergman's Persona. This may be my favorite behind-the-scenes anecdote OF ALL TIME.


  1. The fact that Taylor-Johnson made those actresses read from Persona just shows how seriously she took this film. That's actually pretty cool of her.

    1. I KNOW, RIGHT?!? It was when I read that her vision really clicked for me: This is about Anastasia becoming her own woman. I had half-formed ideas about that while watching the film, but that cemented them.

  2. Very interesting behind the scenes note. I just don't think the execution matches the vision. And I would kill to see a version of this directed by Pedro Almodovar. As it stands, it didn't work for me.

    1. I totally agree that the execution does NOT match the vision. The bit about Persona was a total needle-scratch moment for me. I mean, I makes sense on some level, but WTF?!?!?! But I think there are things to value here. Not the overall package perhaps, but it's not completely worthless. I did a list of ten directors I'd have rather seen direct Fifty Shades - Almodovar, Waters, Lyne, Daniels.... Madonnna... von Trier... They all would have been more interesting than this version.