A film review by Craig J. Koban May 20, 2017

FIFTY SHADES DARKER ˝j

2017, R, 118 mins.

 

Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey  /  Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele  /  Eric Johnson as Jack Hyde  /  Bella Heathcote as Leila Williams  /  Kim Basinger as Elena Lincoln  /  Rita Ora as Mia Grey  /  Marcia Gay Harden as Dr. Grace Trevelyan-Grey  /  Luke Grimes as Elliot Grey  /  Eloise Mumford as Kate Kavanagh  /  Max Martini as Jason Taylor  /  Victor Rasuk as José Rodriguez

Directed by James Foley  /  Written by Niall Leonard, based on the book by E.L. James

Staring at a blank white wall for two plus hours would have been a more erotic experience than watching FIFTY SHADES DARKER, the second film in the - dear God, help us all - trilogy of films based on the popular literary series by E.L. James (I'm using the term "literary" ever-so-loosely).   

A follow-up film to 2015's FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, this sequel makes miniscule improvements over its antecedent, like having a better director at the helm (James Foley replaces Sam Taylor-Johnson), and it's mercifully shorter by 10 minutes.  Sadly, though, FIFTY SHADES DARKER remains a heatless sex thriller of limitless mediocrity that was less sinfully titillating and more a restless watch checking bore to endure.  The film fails as a character drama...it fails as a chronicle of a flawed relationship...it fails as a psychological thriller...and it most definitely fails as soft core porn. 

You may recall the first film (or depending on your mindset after leaving your screening of it...you may have chosen to block it from your memory altogether), which involved the kinky love affair between billionaire industrialist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) that eventually devolved into sexual sadism.  Part of the patently offensive hook to FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was the contract that the pair mutually signed as the basis of their "love" - one that placed Christian in the role of the "dominant" to do what he wanted to with the "submissive" Anastasia whenever and wherever he felt like it.  I found that first film's casual attitudes towards sexual predators nauseating, not to mention how it delegated its main female character to be a victimized prop to serve the purposes of the male character's sick sexual conquests.  

 

 

I gave that film an ultra rare zero star rating, which was more than kind. 

FIFTY SHADES DARKER takes place very shortly after the events of the introductory installment, during which time Anastasia has separated herself from the deranged proclivities of Christian.  She now works as an assistant editor for a small independent publisher, whose boss (Eric Johnson) seems congenial enough on the outside, but it soon becomes obvious that this man will be yet another sickening male that wants to have his way with her.  Now, a far more compelling angle to this screenplay would have been to make her employer a genuine nice guy to create some legitimate conflict between him and Christian, but FIFTY SHADES DARKER would rather exist in a depressing movie universe where all of the hunky and available men in Anastasia's life are repellent scumbags. 

Now, it doesn't take long before Christian comes walking back into Anastasia's life, and even though she rightfully declines his multiple advances, he nevertheless claims that he does indeed love her and wants to foster some semblance of a normal relationship with her.  For reasons the script never plausibly rationalizes, Anastasia decides to let this cretin back into her life, and initially the pair do embark on a very sanitized and "vanilla" courtship, far removed from the S&M dungeon that dominated their past.  Of course, a film like this that advertises itself as a twisted sex romp wouldn't exist without the twisted sex, and the film does indeed contain copious nudity and intercourse that unavoidably reverts back to bondage and whipping.  Christian begins to open up about his troubled past and abusive childhood, which he hopes will help win over Anastasia's heart once and for all.  

I don't know about you, but when you want to win over the affections of a lady the last thing you should probably tell her is that you like hitting her while her legs are tied during anal sex because she reminds you of your mommy. 

The main problem with FIFTY SHADES DARKER - and this series as a whole - is that Christian remains a hauntingly unstable human being that no woman has any right being with and loving.  He's still, when it boils right down to it and despite the screenplay's pathetic attempts to humanize him, a handsome, well dressed, and narcissistic control freak that wants to own Anastasia on his terms.  Anastasia does begin this sequel on a note of confident independence, but she reverts back to a mousy slave that mournfully allows herself to be used as a sex toy by this weirdo.  Attempts at exploring Christian's dark past are ostensibly useless, because in the laughable fantasyland reality of this film it's used to justify his present day lusts.  Christian doesn't deserve Anastasia's love...he deserves a retraining order and a straight jacket. 

The charmless performances between the leads, once again, makes it awfully hard to relate to or develop a rooting interest in these doomed lovers.  Dornan looks as chiseled as ever, but he lets his physique do the acting because when he's forced to speak this film's inordinately ham infested dialogue it's conveyed with the presence and authenticity of a male model in a Calvin Klein cologne commercial.  Johnson fares a bit better than her sculpted co-star, mostly because she's a far better actor, but she too gives such a flavorless performance that you have to pinch and remind yourself that you're supposed to care for this woman and her predicament.  When the pair do have sex it has next to no emotional weight, because neither or their characters are likeable.  I'll give full props to Dornan and Johnson for being a hell of a lot braver than most actors in terms of what they're required to do in this film in their frequent state of undress, but they're like blank mannequins parading around from one tedious sexual rendezvous after another. 

There's also a criminal lack of an actual plot here, especially considering the film's near 120 minute runtime.  Very little, if anything, happens during this film that takes the characters in new directions.  Some fresh faces are thrown in, like Kim Basinger (whose presence alone here reminds viewers of her appearance in an infinitely more involving erotic drama in 9 1/2 WEEKS all those decades ago), playing a former lover of Christian's that sulks about the film, conveniently showing up to mechanically provide some conflict when the film desperately needs it.  Other subplots (like the aforementioned one with Anastasia's sleazeball publishing employer) goes perfunctorily from point A to B and finally to C with stunning predictability.  Then there's Bella Heathcote's appearance as Christian's former submissive that appears and disappears like a ghost in Anastasia's life that apparently can be controlled by Christian - during one humdinger of a scene - as he waves his hand at her in a Jedi mind trick gesture that's positively howl inducing.  Lastly, there's an out-of-left-field plot development involving a helicopter crash that nearly made me want to thrown my popcorn at the screen in disgust. 

You know what's doubly sad?  (A) More of these films will be made and (B) countless millions of women will flock to see them at the cinema and make them profitable.  Outside of partaking in attractive naked actors throughout, I deeply struggle at deciphering the appeal of this film is to its core female viewer base.   I must ask, as I kind of did with my review of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, two simple questions here: Why is a seemingly innocent woman surrendering herself to a misogynist's abusive power and control...sexy...at all?  Why do women ravenously eat this material up?  FIFTY SHADES DARKER has one thing going for it: James Foley (a million miles removed from GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS) shots the film well...and multiple scenes have nice lighting.  The movie looks pretty.  Beyond that, this sequel is off-puttingly ugly.  

Worst of all, it makes bondage sex boring.  How is that possible?

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