I knew that Fifty Shades Darker was going to be two hours of tedium, but nothing could have adequately prepared me for what was in store. When the first adaptation of E.L. James’ Twilight fan fic debuted in 2015, I braved the assured brutality of beleaguering boredom principally to show solidarity with my illustrious predecessor. When the estimable Mr. Ken Hanke asked me what possible rationale could’ve prompted me to do so, I referenced the oft-quoted scene in Dirty Harry in which Eastwood’s Harry Callahan inquires as to the feelings of fortune harbored by a hapless young criminal. The part of that exchange that everyone forgets is the end, wherein the punk who wasn’t feeling so lucky stops Callahan, casually finishing his hot dog, and says “Hey man — I gots to know.” Eastwood then smirks, and pulls the trigger on his Magnum to reveal that the threatening chamber had been absent a round all along. My explanation to Ken regarding my motivation for sitting through Fifty Shades of Grey voluntarily was much the same — I just had to know.
I wish I could tell you that enduring the first film informed my opinion of this sequel, that maybe it enhanced my understanding of this franchise’s appeal in some way, but that would be a lie. There’s no experience here to be enhanced — you already know where this story is going, what these characters are supposed to be (in theory), and roughly how everything is going to go so terribly wrong — at least for the audience. So while there are no surprises from a plotting or character development standpoint, there was at least one shocking factor at play that I had not considered — namely, that this film might have accomplished the seemingly impossible task of being worse than its antecedent. Yes, despite my already rock-bottom expectations, director James Foley — the same James Foley who directed Glengarry, Glen Ross, by the way — has turned out a film more egregious in its failures than a movie defined by contractual obligations involving butt plugs and dialogue including the line “I’m fifty shades of f***ed-up.” How, you may ask? By making a movie defined instead by Ben Wa balls and lines like “kinky f***ery” being delivered with a straight face, that’s how.
And while Foley may not have delivered an erotic thriller any more compelling than that of his source material, he has made one hell of an unintentional comedy. While I was in the distinct minority of moviegoers laughing out loud when I saw the first installment, the audience with which I endured this most present atrocity were significantly more inclined to guffaws than ecstatic gasps. In many ways, this film is more implausible than the sequel to John Wick — a preferable option for theatergoers this week — but that film is at least self-aware enough to acknowledge its inherent absurdity. Fifty Shades Darker, on the other hand, bears the dubious distinction of carrying on Fifty Shades of Grey’s distinctive brand of self-important soft-core pseudo-eroticism while suggesting that some audience members may take all of this nonsense seriously.
Although the first Fifty Shades found itself wanting in both charismatic chemistry between its leads and envelope-pushing sensuality within its script, Darker sidesteps these pitfalls by lacking any conflict or narrative tension and doubling down on the tedious vanilla sex engaged in by its protagonists. When your (anti)climactic S&M sex scene consists of massage oil, a blindfold and — wait for it — the missionary position, you’ve got a problem. The lack of compelling sexual boundary breaking is exacerbated by the fact that Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey is typically at least half-clothed while Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia Steele is in various states of tactfully staged undress, and a distinctive anti-feminist bent becomes clear in the film. Even the promise of Kim Bassinger as the older woman poised to preclude the rekindling of our ostensible protagonists’ dysfunctional romance is given short shrift. There really are no redeeming qualities to this film, and that’s not an accusation I make lightly.
If you’re genuinely looking for an overly talky wish-fulfillment fantasy for vacuous twenty-somethings who think that their burgeoning sexuality and questionable intellectual capacities entitle them to incalculable wealth and unjustified sexual attention, then you’re in luck. For those of us with at least one foot in the real world, Fifty Shades Darker is just another example of why large swaths of the human populace look at our culture as a once-noble experiment now in the death-throws of declining relevance like the Roman Empire in its final days. It might seem like a tenuous assertion to associate America’s current geopolitical status with a film that would have been rejected by Skinemax had its source material not been so inexplicably profitable, but while correlation may be distinct from causality, shame is universal. Rated R for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.