I never thought I'd say this about a bigscreen adaptation of “50 Shades Of Grey,” but it's true: the damn thing's just not trashy enough.
The urge is understandable. When Dana Brunetti and Mike De Luca bought the EL James book, they knew full well what they were buying, and they knew that the first thing they had to do was approach this as a top-of-the-line A-list production across the board if they wanted anyone to take it seriously. The distance between this and about ten million movies that played on Cinemax at 2:00 in the morning is not that great, and if this is going to be the equivalent of the book as a movie, then it can't just be a modest hit. It needs to be a monster, a phenomenon. It needs to be something that people go see over and over, that people can't stop talking about.
Hiring Kelly Marcel to write the adaptation was a strong choice. I'm curious how closely her work here hews to the book, and considering the way EL James made her deals on this film and the way she's been spoken about by the people working on the film, I'm guessing she was deeply involved and that the adaptation is as close as they could make it to what was on the page.
After all, the book is an enormous publishing event, proof that you can start from anywhere as a writer and connect with an audience. I'm not going to poke fun at James or her audience. By now, it has been recounted how this started as “Twilight” fan fiction. It appears there was a fair amount of work between “Master Of The Universe,” that early version, and the eventual e-book that she published in 2011. While there was some discussion about how e-readers make it possible for people to read things more discretely than carrying an actual book would allow, I can tell you that I saw plenty of physical copies of the books in the hands of women at Little League practices or games or at carpool pick-up or in any of the dozens of places where parents interact regularly. It made me laugh every time, imagining what would happen if I took out a Hustler magazine at that same Little League practice.
That's ridiculous, of course. It's not a direct comparison. “50 Shades” is a decidedly woman-driven project. Aside from EL James and Kelly Marcel, the film was directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose first feature was “Nowhere Boy,” a somber and tender look at the early life of John Lennon. It's a smart decision, hiring a woman to direct it. I don't think you automatically hire a woman just because it's a film about women any more than I think you automatically hire a man just because it's a film about manly things. What I find interesting about film is how important point-of-view is. In this case, you're telling a story about a college student with the porn-ready name of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) who goes to interview young handsome billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) purely by coincidence, sitting in for her roommate who is sick. Sparks fly. He pursues her really, really hard, and they have a torrid sexual affair before realizing they are incompatible. The end.
You can tell that story from his point-of-view, and it's the story of this broken billionaire who has kept people at arm's length for so long that when he finally meets the wrong girl, she makes it in past his defenses, then heals him. He's the Beast to her Beauty. If you tell it from her point of view, it's about the way this mysterious man coaxes her into this world step-by-step. I think they chose the right version, as far as that goes, but it also raises some questions for me. For example, looking at the way the sex scenes are shot in the film, one would expect for Taylor-Johnson to shoot those sequences using the female gaze. Instead, it's shot just like most mainstream movie sex scenes, with the emphasis on her nudity and with strategically chosen shots of him that never quite show everything. There's never anything as egregious as “Austin Powers,” but it reveals the double-standard that is part and parcel with anything rated by the MPAA.
Frankly, only a country that is deeply, permanently screwed up when it comes to sex could turn a film like this into an event. Considering how much they talk about how unconventional and dangerous Christian's fetishes are, what they show us here is very, very mild-mannered. The actual sex in the film is perfunctory, familiar in the way it's staged. Hands clenching the sheet. Toes curling, Every single drop of sweat on either of them perfectly placed. It's all very tasteful, and as a result, it's never particularly hot.
I give Dakota Johnson credit. She's got an unwinnable role on her hands here, and she tries to find the grace notes she can play to help elevate the material. She's a lovely young woman, and she's quite adept at comedy. She manages to make some fairly leaden dialogue almost work, and she is savvy enough to know how to play the exact kind of shy and demure that drives the Big Bad Wolf crazy. Dornan, who is very good on the Netflix series “The Fall,” does his best as well, but he's even more stranded by the writing than Johnson is. When Dornan finally has his big moment, the line of dialogue he has to deliver is so laughable that no actor alive could sell it. Dornan is keenly aware of the visual impact he has, and on “The Fall,” he plays the curdled horror that is buried under the skin of his character adeptly, using his appearance as one of his most important weapons.
Christian Grey is pure fantasy, of course, and here's where I'm reluctant to just plain kick this thing in the teeth. Ultimately, this is just a big dopey romance novel. They meet. They circle each other. They collide a little. They circle each other some more. They collide a little more. The film's most pressing dramatic issue is, “Will she sign the sex contract he asks her to sign or not?” His wooing of Anastasia all looks pretty easy since he's a billionaire. Here, let me fly you around in my helicopter. Here's a brand new car for you. Here are more things. Here is more money. Let me buy your affection. If this movie wanted to be really provocative, they'd tell this same sort of story, but about a guy who works at Wal-Mart, who can barely pay his bills, and who isn't particularly hot. Seeing how that guy manages to talk someone into indulging his taste for BDSM would be infinitely more interesting than seeing how The Perfect Man gets exactly what he wants.
The film makes a big deal out of whatever secrets Christian carries. Why is he covered with cigarette burns? Where he did learn to equate pleasure and pain? We hear a little bit of the answer here, but honestly, everything we see Christian do in the movie feels like it's part of his standard shtick on how to impress a lady. Perhaps the only truly interesting choice in the film is the way they end it. I didn't anticipate any sort of bummer at the end of things, but this may be the first blue balls cliffhanger in movie history.
On a technical level, it's solid work all around. Danny Elfman's score is not at all what I would have expected from him, but that's a good thing. It's very lush. I admit to laughing at the way Christian seems to have a habit of playing the “Sad Theme From 'The Incredible Hulk'” in the middle of the night every time he has sex. Seamus McGarvey, who also shot Taylor-Johnson's first feature, has done both big giant event films (“The Avengers,” “Godzilla”) and small, stylish films (“We Need To Talk About Kevin,” “Atonement”), and here, he gives everything a super-polished sheen. It's a very slick film.
But in the end, that slick becomes suffocating, and there's no real pulse here. This is, after all, a film about control and release, and sadly, this film ends up erring on the side of control, when release is what the audience really wants. Fans may be excited to see how much of the film made it to the screen intact, but just taken on its own, “50 Shades Of Grey” is too timid to be trash, too high-minded to be camp, and too restrained to be hot. Tied up or not, this one is too limp to get the job done.
“50 Shades Of Grey” is in theaters on Friday. As a result, roughly 400% more babies than normal should end up being born right around November 13th.