A film review by Craig J. Koban May 15, 2015



2015, R, 125 mins.


Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele  /  Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey  /  Jennifer Ehle as Carla  /  Eloise Mumford as Kate Kavanagh  /  Luke Grimes as Elliot Grey  /  Victor Rasuk as Jose Rodriguez  /  Max Martini as Jason Taylor  /  Rita Ora as Mia Grey  /  Marcia Gay Harden as Dr. Grace Trevelyan Grey  /  Callum Keith Rennie as Ray Steele

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson  /  Written by Kelly Marcel, based on the book by E.L. James

One of central ironies of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is that it’s a film ostensibly about a couple with an unhealthily kinky predilection to sadomasochistic sex that’s pure, unadulterated torture to sit through. 

This is an erotic drama – based on E.L. James’ first book in her popular literary trilogy series that inexplicably began as TWILIGHT fan fiction before taking its current form – that’s neither erotic nor inherently dramatic.  I’ve seen many films over the course of my life that have cheaply titillated me when I wasn’t laughing at their horrendous acting or shoddy production values, but FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is a whole other insipidly awful beast altogether in that it commits one unpardonable sin as far as these type of genre films are concerned: it’s boring as hell.  It’s one thing for this film to beg me to buy into it unrelentingly ridiculous – and borderline offensive – premise, but it’s a whole other matter altogether when it encourages frequent watch checking.  There are ample sex scenes that populate this film featuring two limitlessly attractive young actors, but they simmer with about as much sizzle as a Revlon commercial.   

For a film that’s a punishingly 125 minutes long, there’s not much of an actual plot, per se, in FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, nor is there much exploration into the characters themselves.  Young, shy, and innocent student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is tasked by her sick roommate to seek out and interview a wealthy entrepreneur named Christian Grey (James Dornan) in his upscale Seattle based high-rise office.  Immediately, Ana is hopelessly drawn to Christian’s Svengali like allure and charm, and he seems to reciprocate feelings of attraction as well.  Days later, Christian makes an impromptu visit to the hardware store that Ana works at to see her, after which time they both partake in a spontaneous coffee date that ends rather abruptly, leaving the prospects of any type of meaningful relationship between the pair feel like a hopeless long shot. 



Things change, though, when Ana – during a night of drunken partying – calls Christian, which leaves him coming to her aid and picking her up.  She awakens the next morning from her previous night of intoxication, not knowing how she got to his posh apartment.  It’s at this point that Christian decides to allow Ana into his secret agenda by showing her a hidden playroom, of sorts, filled with bondage gear.  He asks her if she would like to sign a mutually agreeable contract of consent to allow for him to be a “dominant” over her in sex, leaving her being the “submissive.”  Of course, Ana seems legitimately overwhelmed by Christian’s peculiar offer, but she nevertheless seems ensnared by his intoxicating vortex of sinful pleasures.  After they hammer out a contract of what she will and will not consent to, Ana and Christian begin their sex games, which grows increasingly more perverse as the film progresses. 

Okay, let’s talk about the beyond-obvious and condescendingly offensive themes of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.  I’m quite sure that E.L. James was thinking that Ana’s exploration into Christian’s twisted and sordid secret life would allow for her to become a more assured and self-actualized person.  Maybe she thought that this was an old fashioned fairy tale featuring a woman struggling with true love, albeit via a decidedly creepy set of circumstances.  What’s really unsavory about FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is that it never once – not for a solitary second – seems interested in the psychological toil that Christian’s contract has on Ana, nor does it really seem to perceive the central relationship between the pair as damaging and sickening.  Christian, if anything, is basically a well groomed, well spoken, and socially formal sexual predatory and a narcissistic control freak that wants to have his way with women.  Why Ana – or any women, for that matter – would agree to such a courtship with such a hostile human being is something that FIFTY SHADES OF GREY never delves into.  This film simply has nothing valuable or intelligent to say about the nature of sexual abuse or violence.  It’s all about sensatiolism and voyeuristic thrills.   

The performances don’t help at all here in the film’s cause.  Dakota Johnson is arguably the least of the litany of problems here, as she’s able play lip-biting mousiness (with perhaps a bit too much lip biting) as well as she’s allowed to here based on the sometimes cringe-inducingly wretched dialogue she’s forced to utter at times.  Her co-star in Dornan fares far worse.  He has the range here of a ventriloquist without a dummy and is essentially a well-chiseled and exceedingly good-looking man without a hint of psychological grit.  There are no doubts in my mind why the the Irish model turned actor was cast – the dude looks good shirtless and naked, so he certainly can’t be blamed for superficially being appropriate for the role.  Yet, Dornan is such an emotional black hole throughout FIFTY SHADES OF GREY that he comes off as hysterically one-note and charmless.  The fact that he has zero chemistry with Johnson at all kind of seals this film’s dubious fate.  Christian is more of a prop in the film than a flesh and blood character.  Just imagine what an AMERICAN PSYCHO-era Christian Bale could have done with this potentially juicy role. 

I guess that all we're really left with are, yes, the sex scenes.  But, where's the heat and the animalistic intensity?  For a film about bondage in various forms, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY becomes increasingly tedious the longer in progresses.  The scenes are not helped by the way director Sam Taylor-Johnson stages them, replete with mechanized choreography punctuated by a pop-infused soundtrack that make these sequences feel more like glorified music videos on autopilot.  The whole overreaching aesthetic here is distancing and clinical.  Instead of being drawn into this bizarre and unwholesome sexual world of immoral delights with Christian and Ana, we’re often left feeling like we’re watching a softcore daytime soap opera.  I will give modest credit to Johnson and Dornan for being willing participants here, but when we simply don’t care about these people as distinct individuals worthy of our interest…then what’s the ultimate point?   

No one or no one thing mattered to me in FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.  Not.  A.  Thing.  The fact that James’ novel has sold millions upon millions of copies frankly saddens me.  There have been masterful and memorable films that have dealt with deplorable sexual fetishes (see SHAME), but FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is a dirty film in unexpected ways.  It’s not dirty because it’s loaded with nudity.  It’s not dirty because of its many and frequent sex scenes.  No, it’s a dirty film for its blasé attitudes towards sexual predators and how the screenplay treats women.  To Christian, Ana is a woman to be conquered, not loved, and Ana seems desperately willing to be a culprit in his nefarious desires.  And the film has no business being as long as it is considering that all it has is a beginning, middle…more middle…even more middle…and then a lazily executed fade to black card with a tease towards the inevitable sequel.  Having never read any of the James’ books, I sincerely hope that Ana gets to have her way with Christian in FIFTY SHADES DARKER and whip, slap and beat him while bound and gagged.  

That would only seem fair. 

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