Call it deviant or kinky, but bondage and discipline, and its psychological cousins sadism and masochism, are not social norms today. Instead, they are Puritanical adult playground fodder, giggles between people who would probably never consent, but who might enjoy watching said fetish play out in a movie theater. So you’ve got it hand it to director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy). She’s managed to make a slick, serious romance out of a poorly written book and its implausible pop culture happening.
Indeed, 50 Shades of Grey could have easily just lived on forever as word of mouth water cooler soccer mom pseudo smut. Instead, the big screen adaptation of the “international phenomenon” is dutiful and polished, guaranteed to provide fans with the visual images their imaginations had to fill in before. Unfortunately, that means that, by going mainstream, the potential allure of the material’s erotic side is more or less destroyed. 50 Shades may be a lot of things, but what it is not is sexy. Or entertaining.
Reading between the lines a bit, E.L. James’ novels are nothing more than wish fulfillment dressed up in carnal buzzwords. Anastasia Steele (newcomer Dakota Johnson) is not a victim, but an inexperienced virgin who sees a hunky human ATM as possible prince in successful billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She is floored immediately by his devilish good looks and the man’s blatant love-at-first-sight panting over her. She teases and toys with his affections, even when she learns that he’s not into hearts and flowers, but whips and chains. She is embarrassed by the gifts he lavishes on her (car, computer) and yet gladly accepts the other perks (helicopter shuttle service) that comes with contemplating a visit to his secret sex room.
The narrative itself is set in motion by accident. Anastasia substitutes for her sick roommate who was scheduled to interview Christian. There are fireworks almost immediately, but he warns “Ana” that he’s not boyfriend material. Instead, he wants his newfound subject to become the “Submissive” in a contractually mandated man/woman setup. For a while, Ana says no. Then, through constant chiding, she begins to accept certain “scenarios” (being tied up, being spanked). She can’t understand why he wants to use pain as a means to give her pleasure. He is convinced that he can change her perspective on his “perversion.” When pushed to the limits, however, Ana discovers just how twisted Christian is, making her second guess everything about their odd relationship.
The good news is that this film is not the atrocity it could have been. The bad news is it isn’t anything except for a strangulated softcore mess. We never care about Ana and Christian enough to want their complicated relationship to work, and both Ms. Johnson and Mr. Dornan are dead wrong for the roles they play. Neither generates a sense of animal magnetism or lust. Instead, they are put through the paces previously planned out by the books, their one-dimensional onscreen characterizations clearly meant to be filled out by those who’ve struggled through Ms. James’ prose. The few minor sex scenes are dull and sterile, the “shock” of the novels given an MPAA mediocrity that’s as exciting as a rectal exam.
Besides, with the plethora of porn one can easily access via technology, the need for something like 50 Shades clearly comes with its subtext. The reader might be tantalized by tales of beads and tampons, but the real message of this movie is that, with a little teasing, even the most uptight and warped paramour can have his S&M edges smoothed out. Ana is not abused. Instead, she uses her inexperienced status as a ruse, a way to turn Christian from a freak to a fantasy. She wins, but the audiences, inevitably, loses.
The film version of 50 Shades of Grey is what every fan hoped for. For the uninitiated, or just mildly interested, it’s much ado about nothing. Nothing sensual. Nothing scandalous. Nothing to celebrate.