"That's one hell of a sack, Ms. Steele."
You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who read the book Fifty Shades of Grey that would refer to it as high art. As a smutty book that pushes the bounds of believability in both its prose and its depictions of BDSM, it's a novelty that somehow managed to connect with an astonishing number of readers. The most immediate problem with the new film adaptation directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, is that it reeks of its origins as a piece of Twilight fan fiction. It follows the Twilight formula nearly beat for beat: A principle cast made up of people who look a whole lot better than they can act. A marginally respectable female director stepping outside her comfort zone. And most disconcertingly, a storyline that boils down to a man who can have anything that he desires deciding that what he really wants is an exceedingly ordinary, inexperienced woman with whom he can be monogamous, in an attempt to appeal to lonely women who still hold firm to the belief that all they need to be complete is an abusive man that can boss them around.
Fifty Shades of Grey is an abhorrent film, filled to the brim with horrendously cliched dialogue like this bit of clunky exposition delivered by our heroine to her roommate and best friend when questioned about whether or not she'll find her way: "I have a GPS, and a 4.0 GPA." That heroine is Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), an English Lit major whose obsession with Thomas Hardy seems manufactured solely to make her relatable to other such dowdy women. Anastasia agrees to cover for her sick roommate and journalism major Kate (Eloise Mumford) by interviewing successful billionaire bachelor hunk Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the school paper. Grey's business is never discussed in any detail, though I'm sure fans of the book will delight in explaining to me exactly what his business is, but he's a man of "singular tastes" who becomes obsessed with Anastasia for reasons that are never explained in any satisfactory manner.
This man is a captain of industry, yet he falls for a woman with tragic fashion sense and the worst set of bangs this side of Peggy Olson on her first day at Sterling Cooper. The movie is full of bogus wish fulfillment nonsense from the word go, and never lets up. As Anastasia begins to fall for Christian, he begins to essentially stalk her, showing up at her job and at a bar she and her friends are drinking at, always swooping in to save her from god only knows what. The two are so completely devoid of anything even resembling chemistry that you almost hope the script will provide them with dialogue to illustrate their attraction to one another, but it's more concerned with delivering hackneyed bromides than it is in explaining anyone's motivation. It's no exaggeration to say that this is one of the worst scripts ever to grace the silver screen, and it makes the entire film feel like a fifty million dollar remake of The Room.
The Room comparison is even more apt when one considers a scene where Christian's mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden at her most detached, drops by Christian's apartment to invite him to lunch, and then leaves immediately after he declines. It feels like it was written by someone who has no semblance of what actual human interaction looks like because it's a completely foreign concept to them. This is exacerbated by the fact that being gay is used as a punchline on three separate occasions. It's a truly despicable piece of writing by a woman who used to go by the name Snowqueen's Icedragon, but whose publisher likely recommended that she adopt the much more palatable nom de plume E.L. James. Ms. James thinks that being both mentally and physically abusive is sexy, and does absolutely nothing with her characters to prove otherwise.
The practicing members of the BDSM community are understandably outraged over its depiction in these books, and will be even more so by this film adaptation. It's treated with all the sexiness of contract negotiations, because that's essentially what the entire crux of this film boils down to. It's not unlike The Phantom Menace's unhealthy obsession with blockades and trade negotiations. Someone needs to tell Ms. James that there's nothing sexy about contracts. As despicable as her creation of Christian Grey is, it's even more underhanded that she gives us a female protagonist who just wants a man to boss her around and treat her like an obedient slave. It so fundamentally misunderstands what is inherently sexy about the dom lifestyle, introducing terms associated with the practice and treating them with all the respect of tittering schoolchildren. It is an absolutely reprehensible representation of something it pretends to know an awful lot about.
For as awful as the dialogue is, the performances match them in tone deafness. Johnson and Dornan have all the rapport of two actors being forced to cold read a script at a screen test, and it ruins any sort of eroticism that director Taylor-Johnson attempts to create. Johnson simply looks happy to have a job and Dornan is so busy trying to conceal his Irish brogue that all of his line readings come off as flat and disconnected. It's a colossal failure for the ages, and Charlie Hunnam now looks like a genius for having dodged this bullet altogether. As the main character's mothers, Harden and Jennifer Ehle do the best they can with woefully underwritten roles, but even they can't fully acquit themselves of the absolutely stultifying dialogue they're forced to deliver. The rest of the supporting cast is a joke, especially Victor Rasuk as a photographer who harbors a not-so-secret crush on Anastasia. Rasuk is in maybe three scenes and overacts to such an extent that it looked as if he was still auditioning for a role he hadn't yet secured.
The film looks overly filtered and reeks of that digital sheen of someone who hasn't quite figured out how to light a set properly. This is all the more disappointing because it was shot by Seamus McGarvey, who lensed such diversely beautiful films as The Avengers and The Hours. The film absolutely squanders a score by Danny Elfman in favor of interchangeable pop tunes, including a massacred cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire." The whole film just feels as if it wasn't a priority to anyone working on it, from the script and director right on down through the actors and technicians. To call it half-assed would be a compliment.
Fifty Shades of Grey is an absolute affront to anyone with a fully functioning brain in their head. Had it embraced its smuttiness and given in to its categorically absurd dialogue and premise, it might have been a fun guilty pleasure movie to throw on and watch drunkenly with friends. Instead it comes off as a low-rent version of a movie you'd catch on a scrambled porn channel in the 90s, which is already as low-rent as you can get. It's one thing to be a terrible movie with no moral compass or respect for the very subject matter it professes to be representing. It's another thing entirely when that same movie tries to masquerade as high art. Give this film, and anyone who tells you it's a worthwhile endeavor a wide berth. This is a misfire for the ages and one which I hope anyone with an ounce of common sense will see right through. Avoid it at all costs.
GO Rating: 0.5/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]