This is a guest article written by KSK Contributor Sarah Sprague.
When I pitched the idea of seeing this movie to Vince, I told him this:
I know nothing about FIFTY SHADES OF GREY aside from:
1) The book was written by a’Twilight’ fanfic author.
2) The author apparently was a pill on the set and fought with the director.
3) It’s a huge phenomenon dealing with sex and power.
4) It stars the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson.
5) Something about a tampon didn’t make it into the film.
6) Some people think the story is too tame, some people think it’s not a good portrayal of consensual dominate and submissive relationships, some people think it’s a story about abuse.
That’s about it.
The Arclight here in LA has done special cocktails for movies for as long I can remember, and often do special events around a film’s release on their own. I saw the cocktail list when I went to go see JUPITER “Bees don’t lie” ASCENDING on Friday, and thought it would be fun to drink all four cocktails and then see a movie I know very little about for review.
Next thing you know I’m at the bar plowing through the drink menu, waiting for the screening to start. Both of the Arclight’s bars are packed. Lots of couples of dates, lots of ‘girls night out’ parties, and more knee-high boots than you can shake a riding crop at. I overhear a woman explain to her husband that Kindle sales are so high because fans of the book could enjoy it and not have anyone know what they’re really reading.
I get halfway through my ‘Lip Biter’ and realize I’m drinking and reviewing for a site that has the word ‘drunk’ in the title and curse myself for missing the word play in the first place. My date arrives and I move on to the ‘Red Room’ for my next drink. He asks if I knew about the sex in the movie.”Yeah, I hear there there is about twenty minutes of sex.” “How boring,” he replies. I make mental note to time our next frolic.
The lesbian couple next to us are posing for selfies with their FIFTY SHADES tickets. After seeing the movie, I hope they caption the pictures, “Thank God we’re not heteronormal losers.”
I move on to the too sweet ‘Curious’ which is what I imagine ‘apple pie‘ tastes like. Hope I don’t die. I realize I don’t want to die and need some food in my stomach. My date suggests splitting the French Dip panini (which should be a sex position in the movie), but I don’t want all the salt. There is nothing sexy about booze and beef bloat, but I really do need something solid. Chicken chili nachos it is, because obviously there is nothing like a sultry eating of chips, chili, guacamole and cheese to get in the mood. We’re starting to be pressed for time so I pound my last drink, the ‘Mr. Grey.’ The bartender is almost out of ingredients so I get the dregs of the ginger-infused gin bottle, which is all ginger. So gingery. So much bite. Do I really have to see a movie now?
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY opens with a tie.
Mr. Christian Grey, a young man of great wealth and power, is getting ready for his day by selecting a tie. A silver-gray tie out of a collection of silver-gray ties so vast, one has to imagine there isn’t a single Nordstrom’s in the Pacific Northwest with any silver-gray ties left in stock. After taking such care to select the proper silver-gray out of a sea of silver-gray ties, Mr. Grey methodically ties his signature accessory into… a half-Windsor knot? That’s it? A man who we are to learn is an expert in ropes, ties, tape and and zip-ties cannot even be bothered with an Eldredge knot? Not even a dimple? [Vince’s Note:I had to look up the Eldredge knot because I’d never heard of it, and now I hate everything.]
This half-assed suggestion of power without execution sums up what is going to happen over the next two hours of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, a wisp of a sexual power play that is ultimately impotent.
Anastasia Steele (a name straight out of ‘Guiding Light’), covering for her sick college roommate, is set to interview Grey for the student paper in preparation for his upcoming commencement speech at their university. She is frumpy, frazzled and drives an old VW Bug, she’s that uncool and unsure of herself. In contrast, sick college roommate is blonde, fiery and manages to make even her bowl-of-soup-and-blankie-on-the-sofa look more composed than Anastasia’s unbrushed hair.
(By the way, we are to believe sick college roommate is not only the editor of the paper, but is also the valedictorian of their class. It’s hard to believe that a such go-getter would let what seems to be a small head cold keep her from meeting one of the wealthiest, handsomest, most eligible bachelors around. Had Type-A personality been the one to succumb to Mr. Grey’s charms instead of Anastasia, this might have been a much better story.)
Anastasia’s general disheveled-ness is brought into even starker contrast when she arrives at Grey’s company (What does he do? Publishing? There’s still money in that?) which appears to be staffed entirely by the Robert Palmer girls who look at Ana with bemusement. She hands one of them her coat, their collective inner dialogue running along the lines of, “Look at the silly little fawn.” Grey Industries or Publishing or something (remember, four cocktails), must process an awful lot of non-disclosure agreements and probably quietly settles just as many discrimination lawsuits.
Of course, little fawn Ana stumbles — LITERALLY — as she interviews Grey, but he cannot help but be attracted to her nervous lip-biting and ill-fitting cardigan.
And her flip phone. Anastasia is so awkward, she uses a flip phone. An author friend of mine recently lamented she wrote a scene with a phone call and then realized it was completely unrealistic. Every time Anastasia picked up her flip phone, to call or to text, it’s jarringly out of place. Part of Grey’s seduction of Ana is that he has her broken laptop repaired so she could look up what sexual submission means on her own. Yet he can’t even hook her up with an iPhone? Never mind the fact she is an English Lit major who she needs to look up what sexual submission is all about, and that one of the gifts Grey gives her are first editions of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, we are to believe Ana has never had a sexual thought in her entire life until now. Forget the backstory we get on Grey’s introduction to the BDSM lifestyle as a teenager at the hands of one of his mother’s friends, how has Anastasia — a virgin, a point so laughable in its revelation that the entire theater broke into outright cackling— made it to her college graduation without even once considering sex?
So the dance goes. Ana, her no-longer-sick roommate, and a male friend who is pining for Anastasia have a student photo shoot for Grey to go with their story. Grey takes her out for coffee afterwards. Little fawn plays with the lip of her coffee cup. They part. Grey shows up at her job at a Portland hardware store, stocks up on tape, rope and zip-ties. Mild flirting, they part. Ana gets hammered at a bar and drunk dials (ON HER FLIP PHONE) Grey who comes down from Seattle in his helicopter to save her from another man’s advances and, in what is ultimately the most romantic scene in the movie, holds her hair while she pukes. (Oddly enough, Grey’s brother is at the same bar and before you know it, he’s dating no-longer-sick roommate. The whole movie treats Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, WA, and Savannah, GA like they’re all one small college town, only minutes apart.)
Early on in their courtship, he shows her his “red room” of toys and makes her an offer to stay with him in Seattle, in her own room and to share in his rich lifestyle if she’d be willing to submit to his BDSM desires. Love and respect to the film’s art department, they found a wonderful wallpaper with an actual gilded songbird cage print to put on the walls of Ana’s bedroom if she were to take it.
If the gilded cage motif is too on the nose, then the morning after Anastasia and Grey finally consummate their relationship with ordinary sex (obviously you cannot have a virgin running around the place and then expect them to be willingly chained up — that’s for DRAGONSLAYER movies), Ana makes him pancakes to the musical cue of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” Naaailed it. At least Ana’s continued horseshoe wearing — her necklace, her pattern shirt… — is a tad more subtle.
Enough of the craft of the film, let’s get to the real reason you’re probably reading this review; how is the sex?
It’s awful. Awfully boring.
This isn’t a knock on anyone interested in sub/dom roles or whips and chains, but much like EYES WIDE SHUT made orgies seem rather uninteresting, there is no actual heat during Grey and Ana’s sexual congress. A gasp here, a blindfold there, an undersized Grey who only seems to be able to wear old baggy jeans while in the red room; you honestly feel bad for all the preteens who are going to stay up until 1 a.m. to sneak a peek of a breast once their parents are asleep. They use ice cubes? A sexual more so forbidden I remember looking it up after hearing the Seavers joke about using it during their honeymoon after watching an episode of “Growing Pains”.
The only scene that generates any heat is when they negotiate what would be their sexual contract at opposite ends of a conference table, and even that is ruined when the Robert Palmer girls show up to serve them white wine and sushi.
Dakota Johnson has been getting a lot of high praise this week for at least making the purposely humorous moments of the movie work, but I think she shoulders just as much as the blame for rendering the serious parts of the movie laughable. She has range to be sure, and this movie is a good coming out for her as a comedic actress, but she never made Anastasia’s innocence seem believable. Jamie Dornan only says one line with any conviction, “F*ck the paperwork,” which might have been what he was thinking of the entire script. Other than sick/not-sick roommate, every other character is basically treated like a cameo appearance with very little influence on the story. (“Hi, Dad! Thanks for unexpectedly coming to my graduation! Oh hey, this is the billionaire who wants to f*ck me. Okay, gotta run. Catch you on the flippity-flip.”)
Ultimately, why this movie fails (aside from the terrible dialogue, the premise, and the acting), is there are no real stakes. Grey has nothing to lose, we are told he’s had many other women take up his offer of being in his caged room and he himself does not change. So one girl doesn’t want his lifestyle? 15-1 isn’t a terrible record. Anastasia, well, she lost her innocence but at age 21, a college graduate and a reader of books, is that really so bad? Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles was considered a ruined woman in her time, but Anastasia consents willing to Grey’s actions, even to her own detriment. Unlike Tess though, her punishment isn’t that she is ultimately executed. Her penance is that she cannot “save” a broken person, and leaves with tears in her eyes.
Does four cocktails make this an enjoyable movie? No. It helps, and like all the other drunk people in the theater it made the laughter come more readily, but it’s going to take many more drinks to erase the memory of seeing what is possibly one of the worst major releases in quite some time. Pass the bottle.