Published Feb 13, 2015It's difficult to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey because there are a lot ways to talk about it. From its source material's deeply confused depiction and representation of BDSM culture to its hilarious origins as Twilight fan fiction before selling millions of copies worldwide with a new title (changing Bella and Edward into porn-ready Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey), all of the conversation surrounding the film adaptation seems to suggest something genuinely subversive being released onto mainstream audiences in a way that Lars von Trier could have only dreamed when he released Nymphomaniac last spring.
Equally compelling are the arguments about the books normalizing and sexualizing abusive relationships, something E.L. James' source material certainly engenders thanks to the psychology of the first-person narration in the books. While Sam Taylor-Johnson's film ditches that narration, it opens itself up to a lot of questions about the nature of the dominant-submissive relationship between Anastasia and Christian that weren't possible given the dominant (ahem) psychology of the books. At first, Taylor-Johnson's film seems to be asking tantalizing questions about the power dynamics in the film's central relationship, teasing us with something more self-aware than expected for a mainstream audience until — well, that's ultimately the problem with the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. It has no idea what it wants to be.
The film's first act is wonderfully campy, taking an "I can't believe they just said that" script to new levels of deadpan hilarity in a way that feels like we're watching the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker parody of a softcore porn flick. Dakota Johnson sells this thing as best as she can, and it almost feels like everyone's in on the joke, except for Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey, a black hole of charisma, in a performance that feels like he's the kid who missed out on the cast party the night before.
The whole opening 40 minutes are wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, and it feels like one of those times where it's not unintentional comedy, but something a little subtler. It's as if Taylor-Johnson decided the only way to get the audience on board with the darker sexual elements to come was with silly moments of broad comedy, which gives the whole thing a wonderfully naive vibe. The film dares to wink at you and say, "Aren't we dirty?" without ever being all that shocking. In its strong first half, the film suggests something more subversive is in store, which is why the second half of the film is all the more frustrating when it dissolves into a boring, more conventional "erotic thriller" at best.
At its worst, it all ends up being a glorification of abusive relationships, as Anastasia loses the more interesting elements of her character to conveniently fall in love with her abuser. What makes the first act so compelling is the suggestion that there might be more to Ana than she's letting on, but instead the narrative stalls, letting the characters brood for a solid hour before all sense of tension and drama have dissolved, leading to a terribly anticlimactic finale.
While the more offensive elements of Christian's character have apparently been sanded down from the book, and frames Ana and Christian's relationship in what first looks like a more complicated dynamic, the film lacks any real sense of kink or energy to make it work, falling apart by the end. And there is really no better way to sum this up in the film than what can only be called "Chekhov's butt plug."
Partway through the film, in the film's only visually compelling sequence, Ana and Christian sit down to a business meeting where they negotiate the terms of their relationship in a contract. As Ana goes through the list of Christian's preferred sex toys, the film suggests increasingly exciting and subversive things that could shake up the audience before landing on the term "butt plug," something Ana asks Christian to explain (Oh, the charming naivety of this film never ends!). But, much like a Chekhov's gun that never gets to be fired, we never do get to see the aforementioned device, instead only depicting bland sex that wouldn't have been shocking 20 years ago. It's as if the film seems to be laughing in our faces for desiring something a little more subversive, revealing the film to be one overlong, overly smug anticlimax.