The conventional wisdom in advertising is that sex sells, and the phenomenal success of author E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy would seem to bear that out. Virtually no one considers them to be well-written, but the tale of an innocent young women seduced by a handsome, emotionally unavailable billionaire with a taste for riding crops and bondage struck a chord to the tune of 100 million books sold in less than four years. Those are numbers that Hollywood will never ignore.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s big-screen version of the first book in the series, Fifty Shades of Grey, stars Dakota Johnson as college student Anastasia Steele. She’s an English Lit major whose best friend, a budding journalist, gets sick and asks her to handle an assignment—interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the wealthy businessman who’s speaking at their impending graduation ceremony. The two hit it off right away: The awkward young woman is immediately turned on by his power and control, and he’s drawn to her naiveté.
Anastasia eventually learns that Christian, who travels from his sleek, cold office to his sleek cold home in his sleek, cold sports car (which is contrasted with her beat-up VW Bug) has one great interest outside of his business affairs: He likes to be the dominant in sub-dom relationships. The only room in his home that isn’t gunmetal, silver, or sparsely decorated is a “playroom” that’s bathed in red and decked out with the largest variety of S&M gear that money can buy—it’s like the Marquis de Sade’s Toys “R” Us.
But Christian, a control freak to the end, doesn’t want to have that kind of relationship with Anastasia unless she signs a nondisclosure agreement. They haggle over a written contract that dictates exactly what acts she’s willing to have performed on her, because that’s his idea of foreplay. For her part, she balks at some of the more outrageous sections of the contract, and simply demands that they go on normal dates once in a while. As Christian’s attraction grows, however, he’s unable to keep himself in check, and soon he’s introducing the virginal twentysomething to his kinky exploits and making himself more emotionally vulnerable than he ever has before.
Like the source material, the script for Fifty Shades of Grey is poorly written. Screenwriter Kelly Marcel, whose previous credit was co-writing the Walt Disney biopic Saving Mr. Banks, dumps an incredibly dull dose of exposition on the audience in the film’s first two scenes, and the dialogue remains arch and entirely unbelievable throughout. That only accentuates how ridiculous these two characters are, and if it weren’t for Dakota Johnson’s occasionally winning way with a line, the movie would be totally suffocating. Dornan, saddled with a character who’s all metaphor and contains not an ounce of recognizable human emotion, looks embarrassed during the more intense sex sequences, and like he’s posing for a GQ shoot the rest of the time.
Viewers should also be aware that the first sex scene doesn’t happen until a good 45 minutes into the film, and there are really only a handful of them overall. They’re shot by Taylor-Johnson and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey with an arty patina; a dream-like haze surrounds the lovers so strongly that they feel like fantasy sequences, and you half-expect the mood to be shattered by a smash cut to Anastasia alone in bed. Like everything else in the movie, they don’t feel real.
Taylor-Johnson could have fashioned a 21st century take on 9 1/2 Weeks, Adrian Lyne’s infamous ode to a woman coming out of her sexual shell. But without a leading man as charismatic as Mickey Rourke, or characters who are capable of displaying genuine passion, Fifty Shades of Grey becomes little more than a well-photographed but dull late-night-cable flick. If they added foreboding opening and closing monologues by David Duchovny, the whole thing could easily be mistaken for a long-lost episode of Red Shoe Diaries.