Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, Romance
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora
Based on the novel by E.L. James
Written by Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks)
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy)
So where to begin? If you haven't yet heard anything about E.L. James's erotic mega-successful best-seller, "Fifty Shades of Grey," well then, you probably live under a rock, or perhaps spend too much of your time handcuffed to a bedpost in someone's "playroom." It is a raunchy, explicitly-written book that has been criticized for amateurish prose, despite capturing the minds (and hearts?) of millions of women around the globe. When it was announced that every woman's guilty pleasure was going to be made into a movie, each and every detail of its production and casting became headline news, with legions of fans scrutinizing and over-analyzing each tidbit. Finally, this Valentine's Day weekend (opening today, in fact), the big-screen adaptation has arrived. So...curious, inquiring minds want to know: Was it good?
Before we delve into the details of what worked and what didn't, let me frame this review with a bit of context. First, you are reading the written words of a man, one that is more than comfortable with myself, in touch with my emotions and who isn't afraid to cry. I happen to loathe traditional gender-expectation films like The Fast and The Furious and happened to love the re-make of Annie. Heck, In Her Shoes is one of my favorite movies of the past decade. I'm not afraid to admit my love for the occasional "chick flick" and working in the wedding industry for over 13 years, I dare to say that I am also quite capable of enjoying and even understanding films made for female audiences...this of course, is all pretty meaningless, because I am a man nonetheless. That definition alone eliminates me from any real conversation about my ability to "know" or "understand" what women think, or want. My guess as to the exact reasons why a book like Fifty Shades of Grey appeals to so many women - married, unmarried, old, young - is pretty useless and futile, like a virginal boy stumbling to try to find an erogenous zone. It must also be said that I, of course, have not read the book. Like I said, I am a man after all.
So what surprised me the most about the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey is how relatable it was. Not because of its character's..."singular" obsession with BDSM, but because, in a more general sense, it covers a lot of ground that should be identifiable to anyone who has ever been in a relationship. The negotiation, the give and take, the gradual transformation one makes when they fall in love. Having heard so much hype about it going in, I found the movie to be less exploitative than I had imagined the source material being, and ultimately, way more tame and proper.
For those who have lived a sheltered life up until now, let me catch you up. A young college student on the verge of graduation, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), is sent to interview billionaire business mogul, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), as a favor to her roommate, Kate (Eloise Mumford), who was ill. Ana is beautiful but timid, and she is immediately taken by the confident, intimidating Mr. Grey. He radiates mystery and a dark, bad-boy edge, and he too, becomes instantly intrigued by Ana.
As he begins to court her, he also makes clear that he is not a romantic. He does not do "dating." The more Ana is drawn to him, the more he reveals: He actually has a very specific sexual obsession...and he wants Ana to be his "submissive." He shows her his "playroom," not containing video games (like Ana inquires), but whips, chains, ropes and other instruments of pleasure/pain. He even has drafted up a written contract that he encourages Ana to sign, to legally represent her willingness to take part in such activities. For those that haven't read the book (like myself), I will stop there.
For what it's worth, I found Dakota Johnson to be a mesmerizing actress, with just enough raw beauty mixed with a lack of personal confidence to make me believe that someone like her could have made it to the end of her college days still holding on to her virginity. Jamie Dornan too, emitted an impressive balance of darkness, douche-bag-over-confidence and fleeting vulnerability, to create a compelling Christian Grey. For how close these two actors' portrayals stack up to their book versions, it's not for me to know.
But for all the hooplah, and the hemming and hawing I've seen from women on social media who have been feverishly anticipating this movie, I can't help but sense they will be let down when it comes to the sexual content, in both quantity of and quality of the on-screen intimacy. Cue some intrusive pop song every time we know that Christian and Anastasia are about to get it on. By the film's end, each shot of nudity or sex seems tired and repetitive. If this is what passes for hot these days, I'd be interested to know if many of these fans have ever heard of Cinemax, or porn, for that matter. It's a fact that a great majority of the film is spent outside of Christian's playroom, with our main couple fully-clothed, discussing contract terms or negotiating how they want to spend their weekend.
I was surprised to see though, that each sex scene in the film actually felt organic and part of the main story. Where I expected raunch and/or smut, I was instead served up with a scene that propelled the story, and their relationship, forward. I can't say that I'm knowledgeable of the BDSM world, but something tells me that it wouldn't be this tidy and proper. As Christian says in the film, he doesn't "make love," he "f****s. Hard." Using that as an analogy, the all-female filmmaking team (director Samantha Taylor-Johnson and writer Kelly Marcel) is much more interested in making love with the audience. Not f***ing them. While upon first thought you would think that Fifty Shades of Greywould be more appropriately handled in the capable hands of women, I was also left to think that maybe the BDSM portion of Grey's anatomy would have been much more convincingly tackled by men. This may sound sexist, but there was a strange softness to Grey's disorder that felt a bit artificial.
Many will get caught up in the specifics, but Fifty Shades of Grey actually works as romance. I felt the two actors had real chemistry, even if their earlier scenes felt a bit forced. As a non-book-reader, I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that Anastasia, not Christian, is really the dominant one here. Christian increasingly wants what he can't have and Anastasia sees a fixer-upper project in Christian. Both of these plot elements are staples of the romance genre.
I'd be lying if I pretended that I didn't like the film, generally speaking, but one fatal flaw made me sort of hate it. I couldn't help but thinking the entire time, that none of this would be plausible in the least if Christian Grey was not filthy, stinking rich. He is treated as a flawed character because he is a billionaire. If Anastasia would have met this same guy at a homeless shelter, he would have been immediately arrested and labeled a hopeless pervert. So it bothered me that Ana - and masses of women worldwide - may share in the thinking that Christian is somehow "good." It really says a lot about our society, as to what is acceptable and what is not. It's subtle, but it seems like a theme that was embedded into the story on purpose...we see Ana works with a similar-looking hunk at her job at a hardware store, and she is approached by an artistic friend who would probably be a great companion, but she could not be less interested in either of them. No, she wants "the life" that Christian offers her. She has "normal" needs too, but one can't help but think of how this movie would have gone if Christian wasn't the so-called "complete package." I guess his very serious, dangerous mental disorder is just another character flaw, when set against the backdrop of a potential life of luxury.
As flawed as it was effective, the real travesty of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it is only the first film in a planned trilogy. Like so many other trilogies, Grey suffers many first-film blues. For example, several characters are introduced but under-used and under-developed, making me think that they might play a larger part in future films (Grey's mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden, comes to mind). It also absolutely under-serves the audience by ending abruptly and without warning. Surely there is more story...we know there are two more films on the way. But would it have been that bad to make this first chapter feel like a complete film? Talk about torture.
Expectations are very difficult to meet or surpass, especially when they are as high as many have them set for Fifty Shades of Grey. Will rabid fans feel like the movie lived up to the book? Will the curiosity of new fans be satiated? My guess is for newcomers, there will be mild disappointment and a sense of "that's what all the hype was about?", but that ultimately, fans will feel good about it. Curiosity - which was a huge word used in the promotional campaign for the film - will undoubtedly make this a tremendous box office success regardless of what critics or movie-goers feel about it.
But then again, what do I know about such things? I'm just a guy after all, commenting on a popular phenomenon that I don't pretend to fully understand.
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