Something I’ve got to accept that you’ve got to accept is that this is not going to be the perfect review to Fifty Shades of Grey. I encountered the perfect review to Fifty Shades of Grey on letterboxd. I’m gonna have to close with a direct quote of it because it is the perfect review to Fifty Shades of Grey.
But in the meantime, we have to stare at this BIG MOVIE EVENT in a year that’s kind of been up to its neck in BIG MOVIE EVENTS.
Which means having to stare at the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey had provoked a sort of moral uprise in the literary and movie-viewing public based on its alleged glass darkly in the practice of BDSM. And these conversations are completely interesting and the arguments for and against it are totally necessary to hear out and they are made by people a hell of a lot more qualified than I. I wouldn’t be surprised if I myself incidentally get into my own thoughts about how it misrepresents the BDSM culture (it is to BDSM what Hungry Hungry Hippos is to BDSM) or what it means that people are willing to accept this portrayal of sexuality based on superiority based on class or cruelty of a sort that doesn’t imply any truly healthy sharing of trust between two partners. But most of these conversations and applications of ideas on what sex means to different groups of people means nothing in the context of this fucking movie for a reason obvious to anybody who watches it.
Fifty Shades of Grey is mindnumbingly boring. The factor about the movie that made me realize what a mistake it was to step into the theater, the most arresting thing I noticed about this movie, that left me with the emptiest of feelings, is how absolutely boring the movie is. It is one of the longest times I’ve ever spent in a cinema and I have seen Shoah and a single sitting of The Apu Trilogy.
Something tells me if I had gone through with stomaching the absolute literacy desert in the first few chapters of the original source novel by E.L. James (who wrote it as Twilight fanfiction, so oh fucking joy!), I could have seen this coming but, from what I understand, the pornographic element of the movie was stripped out of the book and I’d believe it based on how little of the movie is dedicated to portraying the act of sex so much as it is between two people making the world’s least compelling tug-o’-war of where to go with their relationship in a completely sterile manner: a scene features the two leads discussing contract terms for their sexual activities and “butt plugs” and “nipple clamps” are discussed with an inhuman lack of humor. It’s that neutral on the stance of even the most ridiculous and curious facets of sex, which leaves it not even trying to be erotic.
Isn’t that the reason this whole thing exists to begin with? Wasn’t the plan to try to portray erotica as vividly as possible? You know, even if you stripped most of the material of its sexual content, you can still be extremely sexy, we have several movies capable of doing this. Anyway, it seems like somehow either James or director Sam Taylor-Johnson couldn’t agree on making the film this way (I’m guessing that James was against watering down the sex scenes, but this IS the sex-phobic MPAA) and so that negates a lot of possibility of the movie having personality. So direction is out, it’s a non-entity practically when the two brains behind it can’t agree.
This act on the part of screenwriter Kelly Marcel means that she heroically takes on the task instead of carrying the unpromising plot and characters and villainously decides to just leave shit exactly where it is without any interest in making the movie anywhere near interested in telling us why we should be attracted to the successful business prodigy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) or the Lost Girl Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and holy shit, in a year where I watched iZombie and Fifty Shades of Grey, I can’t figure if Anastasia Steele or Major Lilywhite is the more bullshit name I’ve encountered. From the very unbelievable screw-up of the opening interview between them – Steele acting like a Nolan remake of a Howard Hawks comedy and Grey turning his “I’m tormented” zone to 11 almost immediately by sharing personal information that I don’t think any businessman would allow to escape – we have to leap to the idea that these two beings with no chemistry between them would suddenly be attracted to each other while Grey showcases exactly what James lifted from Twilight‘s Edward Cullen by having the character stalk the hell out of Steele (but that’s ok because he’s handsome AND rich… did we mention he has the money, Lebowski?) for the first 30 minutes before having them discuss the possibility of her partaking in his fetishes and her wanting more romantic emotion within their relationship and that. just. shuts the fucking brakes on this.
Like, the movie isn’t screeching to a halt for two hours, it’s not going fucking anywhere. We have two characters in a stalemate that do not want to change and even spend the movie unchanged, since the movie just about decides it is done rather than feeling like it’s leading up to a conclusion towards Grey and Steele’s push-pull.
It probably wouldn’t be as tedious as it is if it had the two leads were actually willing for a moment to stomach their way through this premise, but both of them have a huge amount of regret to themselves that leaks through their performances – Johnson has decided that her best way to play a character who doesn’t seem to have both feet on the ground (probably because the writing keeps sweeping her around) by downplaying the “intelligence” that we have to be fed about the character by her GPA and education and upping the wide-eyed enlightened naivete of Steele to the point that I can’t tell if she’s attempting satire or parody (thankfully, it doesn’t get in the way of the fact that Steele as a character has more autonomy in this relationship than I expected – I can’t tell if that’s a deviation from the book or not), while Dornan just has such a fixed scowl on his face that makes it clear he’s having a hard spitting out the bone-headed dialogue or finding a character that could actually build to the point of thinking “I’m fifty shades of fucked up” is anywhere near a thing any human would say.
When your two ostensibly human elements feel like they want a continent between them (which editors Anne Coates, Lisa Gunning, and Debra Neil-Fisher grant by keeping them as separated in the frame avoiding sharing screentime with the two of them so we could have a twisted Kuleshov effect), much less a sexual relationship, your movie is not going to be erotic on the basis of itself.
I don’t anyone told cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, though, that nobody else involved in the movie is interested in making it work, because that man is the sole light that movie has and I’m not just saying that because lighting is his job. His presentation of Grey’s world is something like a restrained Bond villain, sleek and icy greys and chrome structuring the headquarters of Grey’s company or his home, giving just slightly the idea that this whole fuck-up may have a touch of preciseness to it. The clean sterility of the shots might actually say more about Grey than Dornan or Kelly could try and more than James thought to prepare about the character, but it’s just not enough to keep me awake.
But, yeah, I really am just stretching at this point how many times I can say this movie put me the hell to sleep and I am sure fans of the book (assuming they exist) have just as much a problem with its emptiness as I do. One day we will have a picture that incites discussion about the sexual acts, how healthy they are, and cinematic portrayals of female sexuality, but it’s not this one. Hell, even a movie that would be a catastrophe of gender politics would have entertained me at least, but not here either. This one just wants to be through and done with itself, like the most awkward sexual encounter you probably have in the back of your mind. This whole review was me trying to find a way to express more fully the main idea of what IS the most perfect review of Fifty Shades of Grey that I’ve ever encountered and I’m going to have to end by quoting it directly, since there’s no other way to button this: