Well, I didn’t hate it.
That, I suppose, constitutes a small triumph for a movie such as Fifty Shades of Grey, the eagerly awaited adaptation of the first of three novels by E.L. James.
And, no, I haven’t read James’s enormously successful but widely panned trilogy. For me, reading time is too precious to waste on junk. Besides, my junk cravings mostly are satisfied at the movies.
R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
That’s not to say that I knew nothing about James’s inescapable novels. I’ve read reviews and stories about the Fifty Shades phenomenon, and joined those who wonder why legions of readers have succumbed to the soft-core call of a story built around bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM, for short).
On screen, Fifty Shades turns out to be a bland romance between two more or less uninteresting characters, one of whom happens to be a Dominant who wants to persuade his new love interest to be his Submissive.
I was hoping for a movie that enthusiastically embraced the trashiness of its conceits, which include ridiculous dialogue, minimal characterization and — of course — the sexual silliness that happens in a room that the male partner in this unlikely duo refers to as his Playroom; i.e., a room full of crops, ropes and other paraphernalia for which I lack the requisite vocabulary. And, yes, in this case, I’m drawing the line on more research.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson keeps the proceedings slick and perhaps even understated, which — devoted trash fans — may decide is precisely the wrong approach. Fans of the novel may find Taylor-Johnson’s work suitably respectful.
Dakota Johnson plays Ana, the college senior who opens the movie by doing a favor for her sick roommate (Eloise Mumford).
Ana agrees to interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the school paper. Grey, a 27-year-old billionaire, is giving the school’s commencement address. During the interview, a nervous Ana is (in theory, if not on screen) overwhelmed by Grey’s sexual magnetism.
From that point on, Ana’s fate is sealed. She’s going to wind up in that Playroom, although not without first being relieved of her virginity by an obligingly considerate Grey.
As a wealthy and tightly wound businessman, Grey insists that Ana sign a contract that specifies and details the nature of their relationship. All sex. No hearts and flowers.
Eventually, the contract is negotiated. Exercising what passes for common sense in this movie, Ana, says “yes” to ropes and “no” to vaginal clamps. Still, she doesn’t sign the contract.
Therein lies whatever tension the story harbors. Can Ana protect her humanity in this situation? Can she break through the control-freak obsessions of a wealthy man and touch his heart? Who, in the end, is the Dominant and who, the Submissive?
The definitive answers, one presumes, will be found in the next two installments.
Of course, we shouldn’t dismiss Grey’s seductive wealth. He has plenty to offer Ana besides spankings — a new car, a ride in his private helicopter and later in a glider and a bedroom in his monotonously modern Seattle apartment, which exudes a designer sleekness that infiltrates most of the movie.
I don’t know how much humor Taylor-Johnson hoped to include, but a good deal of laughter punctuated a preview screening. I found that heartening. The mostly female audience seemed to be having a good time. I enjoyed their enjoyment.
Of the two actors, Johnson steals the show. She tempers Ana’s awkwardness and vulnerability with a sense of an emerging emotional life. Dornan proves a bit of a weak link as a handsome young man with stalker impulses and a gift for playing moody classical music on the grand piano in his apartment, which boasts many polished surfaces.
If there are supposed to be fifty shades to Mr. Grey, it’s not easy to identify more than two, and the movie’s ending ... well ... it either can be regarded as a tease or a cheat. Take your pick.
Those who think that the elusive link between pain and pleasure is a subject worthy of exploration needn’t bother with Fifty Shades, which (you’ll pardon the expression) is strictly a skin-deep affair.
And that returns me to this review’s starting point. The best I can say is that the movie bred no serious contempt in me. Of course, I can’t say that it prompted the opposite reaction, something on the order of appreciative interest, either.
It did, however, serve as a cautionary tale for impressionable, young women. Next time a guy asks if you want to come over and play, you may want to reconsider — either that or stock up on duct tape.