It may take days — even weeks — before I work my way back up the evolutionary scale to where I was before being subjected to Fifty Shades of Grey. There is a very good chance that I will see nothing worse all year. I’m pretty sure I will see nothing more brain-witheringly stupid and boring — or less sexy. Go to your kitchen — find a drooping stalk of celery and a dessicated apple. Now, pretend they’re talking dirty to each other. I guarantee you the results will be hotter than anything conjured up by the characters in this cretinous concoction. Put bluntly, if you want your prurient interests slapped and tickled, you may want to consider other options — possibly one of those shows about bass fishing.
Let us assume that you don’t know of the existence of the “literary” phenomenon responsible for this movie’s existence — a piece of writing by one E.L. James (real name: Erika Mitchell) that started life as a piece of Twilight fan fiction called Master of the Universe put out by Ms. James under the nom de fanfic Snowqueen’s Icedragon. (Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?) Somehow — fueled, she says, by her own midlife crisis — the moody vampire became a moody billionaire with a taste for S&M, the nervous high school virgin became a nervous 27-year-old virgin literature major and hardware store employee, and a cash cow called Fifty Shades of Grey was born. This bovine begat two sequel novels — and now the first has been turned into a cinematic event of an equally lucrative nature. I am told that the film isn’t as bad as the novel — a piece of bone-chilling information that ensures I will never read the book.
The idea is that this is some kind of envelope-pushing, boundary-testing, erotically-daring cinema. Unfortunately, no envelopes were pushed, no boundaries tested and no eros was dared. (Go check out some sex-centric movies made in the early days of ratings — say, 1969-75 — and see how weak this tea is.) No, what we have here is a corny yarn of the prince-and-the-commoner school — a wheezy concept that predates the movies altogether, though I think I saw it in at least one 100-year-old Douglas Fairbanks picture. Here it’s a charisma-challenged filthy rich bore named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) who becomes improbably smitten with — via an even more improbable “meet cute” — the personality-free, working-her-way-through-college Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Quicker than you can flick a beat-me-eat-me-licorice-whip, he’s stalking her — even though he knows this is wrong because he has a Dark Secret. His brand of sex is the kind that leaves a mark — literally. More to the point, he’s a “dominant” looking for a “submissive.”
She wants romance. He wants a contractual agreement. No, really he does — leading to perhaps the only piece of legalese ever to raise the question, “What are butt-plugs?” (I guess this sort of thing is pretty steamy to legal teams.) He shows up wherever she is, showers her with gifts and solves her virginity “problem” for her, but she dithers around and bites her lower lip (Ms. Johnson’s principal acting skill, which still puts her one up on Mr. Dornan) and won’t sign — even after she’s dabbled in his designer den of debauchery devices. This is essentially the whole plot. There is no chemistry here — and apart from the fact that neither of the leads can be accused of possessing a personality, nothing to even explain the attraction. The fact that it’s obvious in interviews that Johnson and Dornan don’t much like each other doesn’t help matters.
What we are supposedly here for is the sex. That’s what all the hype is based on — and hype is about all it is. About 40 minutes of the movie’s 125-minute running time have elapsed before we get to any sex at all. And the sex … even with the whips and chains business, this is pretty tame stuff. (If you want some serious kink for your buck, check out Kathleen Turner in dominatrix togs sodomizing a handcuffed cop with his own nightstick in Ken Russell’s 1984 Crimes of Passion, though in all fairness that didn’t get by the MPAA with an R rating.) There’s not even much in the way of nudity — certainly no frontal views of Dornan and mostly artfully-posed legs from Johnson. Bare breasts and Dornan’s thrusting rump account for most of it. Otherwise, this is just a glossy bore with tin-eared dialogue more apt to induce snickers than drama. (Can anyone really get past Dornan blurting out, “I’m fifty shades of fucked up!” with a straight face?) Maybe it’s the wooden acting and appalling dialogue, but what it mostly reminded me of was Atlas Shrugged (2011) — and that’s an awful thing to say about any movie. Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior, graphic nudity and for language.