An Outsider Attempts To Understand ‘Fifty Shades Darker’

I went into my assignment to review Fifty Shades Darker hyper conscious of the fact that, whatever else you might say about it, the Fifty Shades series is one of the few mainstream works catering specifically to female sexuality — erotica by and for ladies. Thus, I didn’t want to just dismiss it out of hand (surely I’ve gotten my own rocks off to much dumber narratives). You know… difficult as that may be. This is, after all, a literary franchise (a literary phenomenon, really, at one point owning all four of the top four spots on USA Today‘s bestseller list) that began as Twilight fan-fiction posted under the name “Snowqueens Icedragon.”

Which meant, I couldn’t just declare it trashy schlock and move on. It’s supposed to be trashy and schlocky, right? It’s a guilty pleasure. And so rather than watch it like a normal movie, I treated it like a journey to a foreign land, trying to keep an open mind and understand the locals’ customs, rather than judge them. Treating my screening like foreign travel turned out to be easier than I thought when a well-to-do forty-something couple sat down next to me, him with a loud voice that says “I want to be overheard” and two massive bejeweled rings on each index finger like a medieval count, she with a meticulous blonde coif and a baggy-eyed air of long suffering. Were these Fifty Shades superfans? Are giant rings a sex thing? How did they find out about this screening?

Right, the movie. To my mind, the most fascinating thing about Fifty Shades Darker is the way it combines honest id with aspirational lifestyle fantasies and overwrought chivalric romance. For instance, the main character is named “Anastasia Steele.” Which, like “Bella Swan” before it, sounds like the most glamorous name the author could dream up, just a shade less melodramatic than Hercules J. Billionaire, combining as it does the names of the much romanticized Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov and wealthy writer of bodice rippers Danielle Steele.

In Fifty Shades, Ana Steele isn’t a fabulous heiress to a Russian empire, but rather a shy bookworm who works at the Seattle Independent Press (a fictional book place where the smart writers work). Her speech occasionally tends towards cutesy slang like “laters” and “kinky f*ckery,” and my research tells me that she was a virgin before she met the mysterious Christian Grey (a literal billionaire, played by small-toothed glower kiln Jamie Dornan). When he asks his 24-year-old sub why she waited so long for sex, she says “I was reading a lot of Austen and Brontë, and before I met you, I just felt like real men could never measure up.”

The cheeky slang feels like straightforward semi-autobiographical detail from EL James (neé Snowqueens Icedragon), while the rest is this grandiloquent fantasy. Was the lady who was writing fan-fiction based on Twilight (one of the most poorly written bestsellers of our times, with all due disrespect to Dan Brown) herself obsessed with the heroes of Austen and Brontë? Or did she just think those sounded like smart things for Ana Steele to be into? I’m guessing the latter — surely we want our fantasy selves to be smarter and better read than us — but it’s the interplay between these two apparent impulses that’s most interesting about Fifty Shades.

On a practical level, Dakota Johnson is cute and charming, and traditionally beautiful in a tasteful, understated way, but her character is so convoluted that she’s almost impossible to accept as a real person. Where Bella Swan was mostly a cipher, barely described so as to be a better vessel for audience projections, Ana Steele is full of competing detail. Is someone named “Anastasia Steele” really a mousy bookworm? She sounds like she should have a scarf billowing over the back of her convertible while she smokes long cigarettes from a holder. Would the girl who read so much Austen and Brontë that she couldn’t bear to have non-literary sex really say things like “laters” and “f*ckery?”

Of course, the main story focus isn’t Steele but Christian Grey. By the way, the names of these characters alone remind me of one of those shows on HGTV where the host’s “fabulous” redesign invariably seems to involve tearing everything out and repainting it all neutral tones, as if a white backsplash is the pinnacle of decorating. Fifty Shades is like that, aspirational but dull, a fantasy most basic. Look, a rain shower! That’s classy, right? Ana Steele and Christian Grey are subway tile backsplash and white cabinetry made flesh.

Anyway, as we begin our story, Christian Grey, literal billionaire, has become estranged from his former sub, Ana Steele, and he’s desperate to win her back. She saw a scary side of him during their “kinky f*ckery” phase, you see, and in order to make it work again he vows to become just a little more vanilla for her, a little less controlling. As a fantasy husband, it’s easy to see the appeal of Christian Grey, a steely, 27-year-old billionaire (lol) with vacuum tight buttocks whose morning workout involves an actual pommel horse. Which makes him a bit like a combination of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho and “The Torch” from Top Secret!, but I digress. Luckily he’s also some kind of heir, meaning he doesn’t really value money for its own sake like a normal billionaire, and works just enough not to annoy you by being too clingy. Mostly he spends his every waking hour dreaming up new ways to bang you better. Sure, who wouldn’t want that?

Unfortunately for Ana, Christian also has some “issues.” Part of the reason he has so many sex rules, you see, is that he doesn’t like to be touched in the chestal area. Seriously, he actually draws himself a tank top with Ana’s lipstick to indicate the areas she shouldn’t touch. See, Christian is a billionaire heir, but he’s an adopted billionaire heir. Before his rich family found him, he lived with his mother, who OD’d (“she was an addict. Crack.” says Christian, hilariously) and an abusive father. His lipstick tank top area is where his dad used to stub out cigarettes on him, though it also just so happens to be where his heart is — message! Later, Christian tearfully admits that he’s a “sadist” whose kink is punishing women who look like the mother who died on him. “It’s f*cked up, I know,” he says.

Weird, right? It’s like Fifty Shades wants us to think BDSM is sexy and cool and simultaneously judge it, explaining it away with childhood trauma.

So it is that Christian is not just this perfect idle billionaire heartthrob gymnast, he’s also a bit of a “project” — the broody bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks and Prince Valiant all rolled into one. The climax (all sexual implications intended) is Christian’s mom (the rich one, played by Marcia Gay Harden, not the crack-smoking dead one) telling Ana “I’m so glad you’re back together, he never let anyone get close to him before.”

You did it, Ana! You fixed him!

The wish fulfillment is almost all about making Ana (our avatar) into the most special, unique person in the world. Which is entirely understandable. Everyone wants to feel special, after all, and not like slowly decaying organic matter. The part of Fifty Shades that’s harder to get onboard with, however, is just how overwhelmingly basic it is. Christian claims to be an actual sadist, and yet the kinkiest sex they have in the movie is when he straps Ana’s ankles into leather cuffs with a metal, leg separating rod connecting them. Once he’s gotten her legs mechanically spread? He goes down on her a little and then they bang missionary. I admit I’m not much into “the lifestyle” myself, but this all seems like it was written by someone who thought BDSM sounded kinda sexy in a vague way and then wrote an entire series without ever learning more than that.

Likewise, the sex is just so clean and neutral and glossy. There isn’t a single sex scene in it that isn’t set to some song that sounds like Usher and Bruno Mars serenading each other. All music, no sex sounds! There’s no dimples, moles, welts, or pubic hair. It’s all flesh, no fluid. I realize you can’t exactly show dicks going in or money shots in an R-rated movie (nor was I expecting them), but dear God, something, anything to make this sex less painfully clean. I’d be curious to see the European version of Fifty Shades Darker. As it is, it all feels like the dullest, most Disney Channel McDonald’s cheese sex, where you just sort of extrapolate from Hallmark cards and ignore anything with funk or an edge or the hint of grossness that actually makes it, you know, good.

As for the story… well, there isn’t much to say about the story. It feels like the middle chapter of a miniseries, where a series of minor conflicts are easily resolved without exploring much. Ana has a creepy boss (“Jack Hyde,” played by Eric Johnson), so Christian buys the company and fires him. Christian has a clingy ex (“Elena Lincoln,” played by Kim Basinger), so Ana gives her what for and throws a drink in her face. The most tense scene involves Ana confronting a different Christian ex, the suicidal, pistol-wielding Leila, played by Bella Heathcote (a saucer-eyed human doll who’s easy to make look ghostly and possessed). Only she quickly goes away, never to return. Phew, glad we solved that problem!

Narrative sloppiness aside, as an outsider, sitting through Fifty Shades Darker was a reasonably diverting experience, odd, dumb fun made even more fun by an audience that whooped and shouted at the screen during sex scenes. I didn’t really get it, but I enjoyed the feeling of them having fun, though at two hours plus, it’s a bit of a slog.

For non-outsiders, well, I can’t speak to their experience, but I do know that the ring man next to me became bored halfway through the film and started texting, then got loudly indignant when security told him to knock it off. “This is a life-and-death message!” I heard him say on his way out. Call it a mixed review?