Fifty Shades of Grey

| February 13, 2015

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that good movies do not come out in February.  That being said, Fifty Shades of Grey is awful.

I’ve felt a growing responsibility to see this film over the past couple of weeks.  Seeing many articles about people boycotting the film because it glamorizes domestic violence was really starting to get on my nerves.  I don’t consider myself a member of the BDSM community, which it turns out is quite large here in Kalamazoo, Michigan; however, it is an interest of mine and I have met some really cool people who live the lifestyle to various degrees.  One girl I dated was equally inexperienced but wanted me to read Fifty Shades of Grey to get a male perspective on E. L. James’s erotic romance.  The book is horrendously bad and not at all because of its subject matter.  I have no moral objection to erotica and actually found the book to be perfectly effective in that respect.  No, the actual writing of the book is completely terrible.  Being inside Anastasia Steele’s head for 300 pages is excruciating, as she continuously goes back and forth about her relationship with Christian, refuses to accept that she can’t hug him hard enough to change his cold nature, and every time she talks about her inner goddess doing cartwheels in the corner of the room I want to take a cane to her myself, and not in the fun way.

That all being said, the film adaptation of the book is much better.  I fully expected for Ana to be narrating the entire film via voice over.  I expected her to imagine herself in a cheerleader costume jumping for joy as her own inner goddess.  I expected her motivations to be constantly wishy washy and annoying.  I was pleasantly surprised that screenwriter Kelly Marcel was able to resist these urges and thus eliminate a lot of the fluffy filler of the book.  Unfortunately none of this saves the movie much.  The story of an ultra rich, ultra handsome Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) always getting what he wants without consequence or conflict is incredibly uninteresting.  Ana (Dakota Johnson) at least has some inner-conflict about whether she wants this type of relationship if it means giving up the intimacy she’s always imagined comes with having a boyfriend.

To her credit, Johnson does a very capable job with such a bland character.  When I saw she was cast, I thought she looked a bit old for the role, and that Jamie Dornan looked a bit young for Grey, but I actually like having them seem like they’re closer to the same age than suggested in the source material.  Johnson attempts to interject a cunning and charm to Ana that is suggested in the book but always felt forced and out of character when I read it.  Unfortunately, she’s restricted by the script she’s given and thus by the fourth time she starts a scene with “why can’t I just touch you?” or something to that effect I audibly groaned with boredom.  On top of this, her and Dornan had virtually no chemistry together on screen.  I’d heard that they didn’t get along on set, and I have no problem believing that.

Speaking of Dornan, he’s not bringing much to the table here other than his good looks, which I’m sure will be enough for the target audience.  On top of being lifeless and dull as a character, he is much more intense with Ana much more quickly in the film version of the story.  These early scenes between the two are riddled with red flags that might cause any casual audience member to cry out “Run!  He’s going to serial murder you!  When someone feels the need to specifically say they’re not into necrophilia, it means they probably are!”  The Christian Grey character in the book and film is what I personally think people should be offended by.  The implication that in order for someone to enjoy a BDSM lifestyle they must be damaged or otherwise abnormal is infuriating and ignorant.

There’s an old cliché in film that what you don’t see is sexier than what you do, and while I’m all for screen nudity I can’t refute that claim at all.  The single sexiest film I’ve ever seen to date is Match Point with Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.  Zero nudity.  I didn’t think Fifty Shades was going to attempt anything similar, but man when they hit the nudity buffer there’s no going back.  Maybe the film is self-conscious about how boring it is so they were determined to get Dakota Johnson naked in every other scene from then on, but that too got boring quickly.

The dialogue insists on predictably bouncing between one character asking a question and one character then offering exposition.  The audience is rarely shown things that might interest them other than Ana’s submission.  A relationship with Grey’s former dominant, Mrs. Robinson, could present some conflict but no one making the film seems to think that’s important.  This just feels lazy to me, much like the color scheme of the movie being almost exclusively (you guessed it) shades of gray.  Occasionally there’s some dark red, or blue thrown in to give a little variety, but this is roughly as interesting visually as making an Incredible Hulk movie where everything is tinted green.  Get it?

Another thing that struck me as odd and lazy was how the filmmakers used music throughout.  I often argue with my brother about the score for The Social Network, which he doesn’t believe should have won best original score a few years ago because it’s just a series of tones.  My argument is that the score there feels like a character in the movie, and a really great character at that.  The score in Fifty Shades feels more like an annoying friend you brought to the movie who insists on demonstrating how clever he is by pointing out what’s going on emotionally and sub-textually on screen.  I kept feeling the need to poke the score in the side and say, “Yeah, I know.  I got it.  Thanks.”

The film seems pretty confident that it’s going to get sequels, as it purposefully doesn’t go into detail about things that I imagine will become significant later.  It would have been nice if the film felt like a self-contained story rather than arrogantly flaunting its own inexplicable popularity.  This flaunting is further seen in little references to the book that feel painfully out of place here.  Ana’s roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) referring to Ana as a goddess, Christian exclaiming that he’s “fifty shades of [F’ed] up,” as well as his corny good-bye to Ana: “Laters, baby” said with all the robotic insincerity of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) all contribute to this blatant winking to the audience. If you like bad movies as much as I do, or you legitimately enjoyed the book, then this one probably won’t disappoint you, but it’s hard for me to imagine who the audience for this really is.

Fifty Shades of Grey is playing now in theaters everywhere.

About the Author:

Joe Ketchum Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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