So much Internet ink has been spilled over Fifty Shades of Grey — first because of the BDSM content of E.L. James’ steamy 2011 bestseller and then over who would star in the film — that no matter what director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel concocted, it would be a disappointment. There was no way any mainstream film could portray the book’s shock-around-the-clock sexuality or that any actors could sustain all of the wish-fulfillment fantasies of the story’s most ardent fans.
Still, even with those obstacles, Fifty Shades of Grey needs to have characters who connect with each other and with whom an audience can connect, even if it can’t duplicate the book’s exact appeal. And that’s where the movie falls down. The easily titillated may come for the biology, but what Fifty Shades lacks is chemistry.
Dakota Johnson (Need for Speed, The Social Network) is Anastasia Steele, a young woman who — despite bearing the name of a soap-opera villain — is a shy, slightly nervous English Lit major. She’s especially bumbling around 27-year-old Seattle telecom millionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, The Fall) whom she’s interviewing in advance of his commencement speech at her Portland college. They “meet cute” when she literally tumbles into his office.
But Grey — the kind of man who has a fleet of icy, leggy assistants who look as if they’re straight from an ’80s Robert Palmer video — is attracted to her and she thinks he’s kind of easy on the eyes, too. Faster than you can say “Hey, you want me to do what?” he’s introducing her to his secret world of dominance and submission. He even has an entire room, dubbed the playroom, filled with what to the casual eye look like instruments of torture.
The movie’s best moments come early, as Anastasia slowly becomes aware of what she’s getting into. Johnson is good at conveying the subtle, giddy energy of initial attraction and then the bewilderment that sets in as she realizes that the man she is fantasizing a life with — who is actually kind of creepy and stalkerlike — may be beyond her understanding.
There’s a very funny scene where, once she verbally agrees to get involved, they hash out a written contract about which of his sexual whims she will or will not satisfy. While she may be signing up to be a submissive, Anastasia seems to be coming into her own and finding her voice.
But the (intentional) humor evaporates about halfway through Grey’s 125-minute running time. From there it becomes a plodding roundelay of soft-core, increasingly slap-happy sex and flat dialogue, much of it revolving around him not being able to commit or love because he’s really one seriously damaged dude.
Yet the film’s biggest problem is its two stars. Despite all the ripped abs and exposed breasts, blindfolds and cuffs, there are few sparks between them. Without that, Fifty Shades of Grey feels as cold and sterile as Grey’s sleek penthouse.
No doubt, just as with the book, much will be written and argued about the movie’s sexual politics, why women in particular seem to be drawn to its themes, its portrayal of those involved in BDSM, what type of box-office juggernaut it’s going to be (it’s the first of a trilogy), and its excellent soundtrack (Annie Lennox’s I Put a Spell on You is magic). It will be reviled in some quarters (the Archbishop of Cincinnati is calling for a boycott) and celebrated in others.
All that is well and good but its worst sin is that it’s boring. That’s more painful than all of the toys in Grey’s playroom put together.
Cary Darling, 817 390-7571
Fifty Shades of Grey
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle
Rated: R (strong sexual content including dialogue, unusual behavior, graphic nudity, strong language)
Running time: 125 min.