Review by Matt Finley
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. It's a book. It's a film. It's a phenomenon what's strange pop cultural power extends so far beyond the work as to make objective criticism of the art itself about as relevant as a graphic design review of an enchanted sigil.
E.L. James' breakout 2011 novel Fifty Shades of Grey began life as a randy bit of Twilight fan fiction before the author cast out the popular vampires, exorcised all traces of the supernatural, and rebuilt the story as a BDSM-inflected romance between 28-year-old business magnate/millionaire/pilot/pianist (so, way more believable than a vampire), Christian Grey, and doe-eyed 21-year-old intern candidate, Anastasia Steele.
Portrayed in the film by the muscular-if-unremarkable Jamie Dornan, Grey is a bland, emotionless husk keen on leveraging his incredible wealth to lure lusty young innocents to his leather-swaddled S&M playroom. Though his unspecified money company, Grey House, has earned him a skyscraper, a parking garage full of luxury cars, and apparently infinite downtime in which to tone up his spanking muscles, the only business with which Grey is ever concerned is getting young Anastasia to sign a contract that would give him complete control of her physical and sexual life.
Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), on the other hand, is prudish, broke, and in search of a more traditional relationship. She likes Grey and is open to having her butt smacked around a bit, but, ultimately, hopes to show him that there's more to love than horsehair whips and literal binding clauses.
Annnnd... that's the whole movie. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, a noted art photographer, imbues the whole affair with a sharp, classy sterility that manages to raise the film's repeated scenes of intense, writhing softcore a cut above those of '90s Cinemax. This isn't to say the self-serious shots of stuff like a single peacock feather caressing a butt cheek are any more erotic... they just aren't quite as hilarious - a problem a surprisingly turgid Danny Elfman score deftly resolves.
In short, the almost-certainly-extant porn parody probably serves as a more faithful adaptation of readers' sexually charged mental processing of the story's inflamed passions than this sanitized theatrical version ever could.
A personal note about the sex scenes: I was pleased to see they allowed Johnson to retain the dignity of pubic hair. And from my wife: how does this movie have fewer wiener shots than GONE GIRL? More wiener shots, please.
As to the broader cultural concerns about the film's portrayal of female agency and consent? The seriousness of the topic and its ramifications lay far beyond my ability to unpack here. I will say that the first half of the film, during which Anastasia responds to Christian's douchey willfulness with playful denial and some wicked teasing, was far more entertaining and pleasant than the latter half, wherein everything turns to brooding and tears.
More insidious is the way in which FIFTY SHADES treats Christian's sexual proclivities as a symptom of psychological sickness rather than a manifestation of normative sexual urges. The consent issues are, in my mind, forgivable if the book were truly kink- or fetish-positive - there's nothing wrong with fiction written to vicariously satisfy a masochistic urge, or an abuse or rape fantasy.
FIFTY SHADES, though, uses the allure of naughty, sexy sex to sell a product that wages a moral indictment against a character for being aroused by the same thing the satisfied viewer is getting off on. Anastasia doesn't date Christian because she's secretly turned on by his lifestyle - she makes herself a martyr in an attempt to cure him of his "disorder." In this way, it smacks of hell houses and other hypocritical Scared Straight-style edu-tainments that traffic in the same graphic supposed immoralities they set out to impune.
Really, though, it wasn't the slight moral outrage that made FIFTY SHADES OF GREY an unpleasant slog. It turns out that once you get rid of all the Tim Curry and the cenobites, on-screen S&M just isn't very compelling. I'd have been happier with some bondage porn edited liberally throughout ANNIE HALL.
But then, I also wouldn't have chosen Arial Narrow for that sigil's runes. (1.5 out of 4 Stars)