Rating: 4 out of 10
Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele
Psychologist Eva Heller once stated that grey is the color humans most associate with conformity, boredom and modesty. I point that out not to note the irony that a film purporting to explore the darker corners of human sexuality carries what is apparently the world’s most boring color as its coat of arms.
There’s nothing ironic about Fifty Shades of Grey, that would require actual insight. I mention it because it perfectly sums up what film has to offer: bland melodrama reading like excerpts stolen from a high school girl’s diary and blander sex stolen from light night cable as recent graduate Anastasia Steele (Johnson) sets out in search of the person she wants to be and the life she wants to lead in her public and private worlds.
With a name like Anastasia Steele, you would assume that search would lead her to the life of either a superhero or romance novel heroine. It turns out to be the latter when she stumbles into the life of Christian Grey (Dornan), an imposing, imperious billionaire who bends the world around him to his will. Or at least that’s the intent; in reality no word in that sentence can be applied to Jamie Dornan who speaks every line as if reading from a cue card and is unable to muster any emotion beyond dull surprise.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) manages much the same effect from everyone else in the cast, including veteran actors like Jennifer Ehle. They say half of directing is casting, but here the actors seem largely lost in Kelly Marcel’s (Saving Mr. Banks) script – which embraces the ridiculous prose the source material was roundly criticized for – and abandoned by Taylor-Johnson, who does not command the material so much as ride heard over it, focusing her attention on visual and mood instead.
Instantly attracted to Christian’s looks and wealth, and sensing hidden depths beneath his reserved exterior, Ana allows herself to be drawn into his world of opulence and allows Taylor-Johnson to create a film filled with beautiful people and beautiful things. Taking advantage of the impressively modernistic production design from David Wasco and Seamus McGarvey’s luscious cinematography – which makes eye-love to everything it focuses on from Seattle architecture to Johnson’s frequently naked body – “Fifty Shades” creates an impressive air of decadence which is pleasant to look at, if nothing else.
The visuals are ably matched by an intricately designed soundtrack (centered on Danny Elfman’s score), which is more interesting than anything actually happening on screen. The result is a film which embraces the audience’s senses, and then sits on its haunches, unsure what to do next.
It’s a feeling Ana can relate to as she tries to decide whether or not she wants to take the plunge into a world fraught with danger, where pleasure and pain are frequently tied together. I’m not talking about BDSM; I’m talking about bad romance writing.
Obsessed as it is with the physical, there’s not much room in “Fifty Shades” for anything more – certainly not things like plot, emotion or recognizable human characteristics. It’s all the more impressive than how engaging Johnson manages to be in a role that is both badly conceived and underwritten. I give double points for managing to sound charming and funny even when talking about fisting.
And if you don’t know what that is you’re not going to find out here; for all its innuendo, Last Tango in Paris the film is not. Nor is it some sort of symposium on the different colors of human sexuality cast amid a young woman’s voyage of self-discovery.
It is merely bad adolescent romance following the typical path of introverted girl drawing theoretically intriguing man’s attention and blossoming into mature young woman while simultaneously forcing him to release the emotional hang up he is unable to talk about and transform from melancholic brooder into earnest romantic partner. It’s unspeakably lazy.
There have been and will continue to be well-crafted works exploring the intersection of human relationships and human sexuality that people must navigate every day – emotional peril is built in, which means drama is built in – but you have to be willing to put forth the effort and that is not the filmmakers’ mission here.
One could make the argument that none of that is the point behind a Fifty Shades of Grey movie and fair enough, but insofar as titillation goes, there’s nothing here which hasn’t been made a meal of by a host of premium cable channels over the years, and with about as much effect.
Bland and dull, except for the rare moments when it is unintentionally hilarious, all “Fifty Shades” has to teach the curious is that it doesn’t matter how many shades of grey you use, you will just end up with a drab, colorless blob. I can’t help but imagine Zalman King is rolling around in his grave somewhere, wondering what the big deal is.[Gallery not found]