The big question – why you would make a sequel to a movie as tepid as Fifty Shades of Grey – is easy to answer: money, lots and lots of money. Any hopes attached to novelist E.L. James handing off screenplay duties are immediately dashed by a quick IMDb search; screenwriter Niall Leonard is James’s husband. (So with these personnel switches in writer and director, the original film’s sole redeeming factor – that it was an R-rated hit written and directed by women – are thus negated.) He doesn’t have much of a plot to work with: after a few minutes of moping following their end-of-the-first-film split, filthy rich hottie Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) takes his lady love Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) out to dinner and informs her, “I want you back. I’d like to renegotiate the terms.” That old softie!
And the rest of the movie is basically the same series of tiresome scenes, monotonously repeated: he does something possessive and/or bonkers, she calls him on it, he makes the tiniest concession, and thus it’s love and off they go for another deeply unerotic sex scene. (More on those later.) There are other elements that float across the screen occasionally: his stalking by an emo Elle Fanning wannabee, workplace intrigue with her initially handsome but then cartoonishly villainous boss (if you’d like to know how subtle this switch is, they literally named him Mr. Hyde), an out-of-nowhere plane crash resolved with a bit of staging that a comedy director couldn’t have mined for a bigger laugh. But mostly, it’s two-plus hours of Johnson and Dornan sorta-fighting and sorta-fucking.
Johnson is, at least, fun to watch – though it’s something like watching a hostage video, with a kidnappee insisting she’s being well treated, while desperately signaling us with blinking Morse code. In Johnson’s best line readings, you can hear echoes of her mother’s dizzy comic timing – she has a way of trailing off her bad dialogue that’s charming and disarming (seeing a photographer friend’s portraits of her at a show, she notes “They’re… super… large…”; surveying the paraphernalia of Christian’s “Red Room,” she asks, of his maid, “Does she… dust… in… here?”). And she knows, as we all would, that the line “I’m not putting those in my butt” is not to be played straight.
But Jamie Dornan. Jesus Fucking Christ, Jamie Dornan. I’ll direct you to the scene where she asks him, point-blank, about his mother, and he replies in what could generously be deemed a monotone,“She was addicted. Crack. You can fill in the blanks.” Speaking of blanks, nothing is ever happening here, ever. GOD HE IS BAD, HE IS SO SO BAD. Even someone with Johnson’s considerable charisma can’t get any heat going with a block of wood like this. Actually, to call his performance wooden is an insult to wood, which is a fine natural resource that demonstrably makes our world a better place. Jamie Dornan does not. He is a blight, and I’m angry at any movie that makes me listen to him talk for 118 minutes.
As a result, it’s difficult to recall being less invested in an onscreen couple. Their relationship seems to be driven not by attraction or affection, but a shared love of expensive shit. You have to go back to Brewster’s Millions to find a film more defined by its conspicuous consumption: iPhones are exchanged, five-figure checks are torn up, a closet full of gowns and lingerie and accessories is provided for a single night’s date to a costume ball, where we sit in on an auction of absurdly overpriced garbage. (About that costume ball set piece: The last thing you should want to remind people of during a movie like this is Eyes Wide Shut.) And while the new film doesn’t share the previous film’s inexplicable fascination with the act of flying in an airplane (seriously, the first people who flew in a plane didn’t think it was as cool as that movie), we do get a similar sequence of Christian and Anastasia driving a boat — it’s staged as if this is the be all to end all of fancy-people living, the soundtrack swelling with soft rock, the screen filled with enough beauty shots to make you think they paused the movie because they really, really needed to sell a boat.
But the film is full of that sort of sheer, inexplicable incompetence, from the VH1 mixtape quality of the needle drops (often painfully on the nose: a singer purrs “I am not afraid any more” after Anastasia consents to go back to the Red Room) to the confounding dialogue (which sounds as though it was translated through two or three languages on its way to English) to the moment, already legendary in film critic circles, wherein Christian plays his most emotional, confessional scene with a giant, framed Chronicles of Riddick poster over his shoulder. (Your guess is as good as mine.)
What’s most befuddling about Fifty Shades, however, is that it views itself with such utter solemnity. Johnson seems to know that it’s all ridiculous, and winks when she can, but everyone else approaches this as though it were some sort of sacred text, and much be given the proper, reverential treatment. (I mean, the act of saying her character’s full name aloud, an oddly frequent occurrence, is hilarious.) But even such ready-made camp moments as the climactic descent into slaps and drinks in the face are bobbled by Foley, and by actors who don’t know what the hell to make of any of it.
And as for the sex, well. Early on, Johnson playfully complains, “I was being romantic and then you just go an distract me with your kinky fuckery,” a goofy line, but one that gets at the heart of what these movies (and the books before them) tantalizingly, teasingly promise their audiences. Trouble is, it’s not even kinky. The new film’s first sex scene is explicitly labeled as “vanilla,” and it is: a little cunnilingus, followed by boring ol’ missionary. But later, a big deal is made of Anastasia letting Christian spank her – which he does, by my count, three times (maybe four, don’t quote me on that), and they immediately go to boring ol’ missionary. Later, he breaks out a spreader bar, which is used as a prelude to… doggy-style sex. And when they finally make a carnal visit to that notorious Red Room, he (COVER YOUR EYES, NSFW) blindfolds her, rubs massage oil on her, puts handcuffs on her, and then… takes off the handcuffs so they can go to boring ol’ missionary.
This is a PTA meeting’s version of scandalous sexual behavior – and a fundamental misunderstanding of fetishes, because it operates under the assumption that all kinks are just foreplay for “regular” sexual intercourse. Steamy eroticism is literally the one thing these movies need to get right, and two times in a row, they’ve even managed to fuck that up.
Fifty Shades Darker is in theaters now.