My curiosity got the best of me and I actually read the book, Fifty Shades of Grey, and it is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read. It’s poorly written to a near hilarious degree, the Twilight fanfiction origins were more than obvious, characters were shallow and irritating and the film had a very disturbing abusive undertone that completely misrepresents what BDSM means for the people that take part in it. I only read the first book mainly to see what all the fuss was about, and I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised when a film adaptation was announced. To me, it didn’t seem like something that would get a wide release, but…here we are.
Fifty Shades of Grey follows a simple premise. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a senior year college student who, in place of her sick friend, goes to interview the young, mysterious billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). They make an immediate connection, but Ana slowly finds out about Christian’s desires, which are more unconventional.
Given the infamy of the books and their connection with the much maligned Twilight franchise, it is incredibly easy to simply dismiss Fifty Shades of Grey and be done with it. I’ll admit that even I was kind of dreading the film, ready to tear it apart. And honestly, the film is not that bad. It’s still bad, in so many ways and there will be no way I could defend this as a good movie, but it’s not the trainwreck that people may have expected.
I will say that the film is miles ahead of the book. It basically takes all the infuriating elements out and strips the narrative to its bare bones, all the while refocusing the thematic elements with a new angle being far more self-aware than the book ever could’ve been. It comes across very obviously that director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel are not fans of the source material and are doing their best to try and salvage whatever they can from it. And don’t just take it from me, it’s been reported that Sam Taylor-Johnson and book writer E.L. James have been butting heads over some of the creative decisions during the production. While I can say that the film is better than I expected, it still doesn’t transcend the trashy roots.
A lot of the film’s problems stem from the writing, no surprise there. It still has the basic structure of the book, even if the framing is different. I am glad that the abusive-relationship-masquerading-as-BDSM aspect of the book is not as heavily present in the film, though some moments and lines of dialogue do make that element rear its ugly head. There is a better attempt at adding more characterization for both Ana and Christian, but they still come across as shallow. The plotting is still bad, dialogue is absolutely horrendous, and the ending is abrupt with no real final act.
Arguably the biggest sin of the film is that it’s painfully tame and unsexy. Granted it’s almost rare to see a wide release have as many sex scenes as this film. However, if this would come out in the peak of 80’s/90’s erotic thrillers, Fifty Shades of Grey is nothing. The scenes themselves are about as typical as any generic Hollywood sex scene, with very little differentiating it from any other film in the genre. It doesn’t help that the two leads have no chemistry whatsoever. Even if the movie was good, it would still be a bit of a failure because the backbone of any good romance film, especially if it’s meant to be as steamy as this, is the chemistry between the leads. If there’s no chemistry, the romance that’s front-and-center will not work. Apparently, Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan really didn’t enjoy each other’s company during the production and if that’s accurate, it makes sense given how little is going on in between them during scenes that are meant to titillate. Also, lack of male nudity is quite disappointing. Considering the target audience, you’d think there’d be extra effort in that department. I had the same issue with Magic Mike, but at least that was a good film.
The good things about the film are few and far between, despite the improvements. The film is technically well put together. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, composer Danny Elfman, and editor Lisa Gunning do fine work. Sam Taylor-Johnson knows how to make a sleek looking film. Jamie Dornan is unfortunately very flat; he delivers all his lines the same way while being on full-on serial killer mode. He might be good in other things, I haven’t seen him before, but here he lacks the charisma that the role requires. The real standout of the film is Dakota Johnson. Despite the terrible script, she is able to make the best of what she’s given. She has really good comic timing during the intentionally funny moments. She has a natural screen presence (which doesn’t completely surprise me since she’s the offspring of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith), which makes her very watchable. Her playfulness with the role prevented the film from being unbearable.
I would describe Fifty Shades of Grey as 60% boring and 40% entertaining schlock. It is most definitely a bad film that isn’t as engaging as it could have been, but I can’t consider it the worst thing ever. I appreciated the more toxic elements of the book being toned down, and even if some moments still come off that way, it’s nowhere near as offensive. It’s a film that is clearly not being taken seriously, not by the actors, not by the filmmakers, so there’s no reason the audience should. If my audience is of any indication, the fans of the material are in on the joke, as they laughed at both the intentionally and unintentionally humorous moments. I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem recommending it as a guilty pleasure film, but given how boring and tame the movie is overall, there is no reason to see it. Save your money and watch something else. If you want to see another movie that tackles BDSM, check out Secretary, or if you just want a good romance, watch Beyond the Lights, it’s one of the most under-appreciated films of 2014 and a good showcase on how to do adult-oriented romantic drama without any manipulative or melodramatic nonsense.