You only hurt the one you love in E L James’ “Fifty Shades” best-selling trilogy of S&M romance novels. And now comes a film version of her first book, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a movie apparently willed into being by legions of hardcore readers, mostly women. If ever a sheep came dressed in a wolf’s scruffy hide it’s this slushy romance disguised as a bondage thriller.
Pulpy and gooey to its core, “Fifty Shades” plays at being naughty yet wouldn’t dream of delving into fictional realms occupied by the works of the Marquis de Sade or Anne Desclos. Your parents probably spanked harder than the tepid love taps delivered by Christian Grey to his eager yet resistant lover, the virginal Anastasia Steele.
Women will drag reluctant dates and spouses to “Fifty Shades” for Valentine’s Day and beyond, assuring the kind of franchise box office that studios these days thrive on so no worries in that area. It’s harmless drivel but the idea of two more “Fifty Shades” movies sounds like real torture.
One warning at least for those dates: This movie is a huge bore.
Whether there was enough material for one decent movie in James’ three books is debatable. But a first act, so to speak, stretched to two hours means you have plenty of time to text message warnings to friends foolish enough to buy tickets in the mistaken belief this might be a serious look at sexual fantasies, extreme freedom or the aesthetics of pain.
Instead you get a fantasy about a “hot” billionaire stud who insists “I don’t do romance,” then proceeds to do exactly that by seducing and deflowering the overwhelmed heroine.
Only his tastes are “very singular,” he insists. He then escorts Anastasia into his Playroom, a locked room in his penthouse containing enough instruments and devices to bind and punish willing female victims. (She is Number Sixteen in his personal hit parade evidently.) Needless to say, little of the movie actually takes place in this room.
Instead we get, from a guy who doesn’t do hearts and flowers, incredibly expensive first editions and a new car showered on his lover. He pursues her like a stalker but since he’s a billionaire entrepreneur she doesn’t call the police; she in her own subtle way in fact eggs him on.
This is a story lacking in genuine conflict or human interaction but rather unfolds as a series of calculations about how much pop psychology, dirty talk and hints of depraved yearnings one can smuggle into what is actually a heart-and-flowers romance.
Any relationship to the weird world of real dominants, submissives and sexual slavery is just a tease.
Where this will end up by the third movie, meaning who will dominate whom, is a foregone conclusion. Hint: the author, director and writer are all women.
Of the two actors, Dakota Johnson shines because she projects much vulnerability in her struggle to understand the peccadilloes of her lover even as she reminds a viewer how people can fall in love through their bodies rather than minds. In her instance it’s particularly poignant since she is somehow an English-lit senior who has never had sex.
Jamie Dornan as the GQ-ready telecom magnate with a hidden lifestyle is by contrast stiff and uninteresting other than his sculpted build and icy demeanor. While he’s meant to be an enigma the actor playing him shouldn’t treat him as such, which is what Dornan does.
The initial meet-cute between Steele and Grey couldn’t be more engineered. Ana’s roommate (Eloise Mumford) has a bad cold and can’t be bothered to go to an interview she has scored with Seattle billionaire/entrepreneur Christian Grey. So she sends Ana. Really?
So dressed like a hick, Ana is escorted through a cold glass corporate tower where he receives her in clothes that can only cost serious money if they’re to adorn his body. She asks her roomie’s dumb questions — What do you attribute your success to and are you gay? — while he transitions from appalled to smitten in a matter of moments.
Then the movie becomes obsessed about a contract Christian has drawn up that must be signed by her before these consenting adults do anything. Of course, they do all sorts of sexual things and I don’t think that contract ever did get signed. Perhaps in one of the next two movies.
While the contract is meant to symbolize Ana’s complete submission to her dominant lover, the movie’s focus on this document assumes extreme legalistic proportions.
Where would this contract be enforceable exactly? In a court of law? Would a billionaire actually file a breach of contract suit against a woman whose only possession is a “classic” VW bug? How would that play out for a jury? What would People magazine say?
While the movie talks dirty, what materializes on the screen is soft focus and barely soft core. The movie never threatens to get the least edgy or dangerous in the play among sexualized adults. It never pushes into territory where sexual release can only be achieved through violence.
In truth, the filmmakers exist in their own kind of bondage — to the feeble storyline and insipid dialogue of badly written novels that adoring fans demand must be delivered on screen without alteration.
So writer Kelly Marcel (of the family friendly “Saving Mr. Banks”) and director Sam Taylor-Johnson (“Nowhere Boy”) can bring no imagination or artistry to bear on the material. Theirs is a carefully delineated path to a sequel-setup ending.
All other characters are poorly sketched, mere props and set decor to give Ana and Christian someone to speak to — Luke Grimes as Christian’s brother Elliot, Victor Rasuk as Ana’s besotted male friend, Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden as Christian’s adaptive mother, Jennifer Ehle as Ana’s mom and Max Martini as Christian’s ever hovering bodyguard/driver.
Annie Lennox’s sultry version of “I Put a Spell on You” opens the movie where she captures the very essence of what “Fifty Shades” should have been — a poetic hymn to fatal enchantment and the excruciating dread/excitement of a lover’s urges.
Opens: February 13, 2015 (Universal Pictures/Focus Features)
Production companies: Focus Features, Michael De Luca Prods., Trigger Street Prods.
Cast: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Screenwriter: Kelly Marcel
Based on the novel by: E L James
Producers: Michael De Luca, E L James, Dana Brunetti
Executive producers: Marcus Viscidi, Jeb Brody
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: David Wasco
Music: Danny Elfman
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editors: Debra Neil-Fisher, Anne V. Coates, Lisa Gunning
R rating, 125 minutes