Fifty Shades of Grey is not without precedent. The last time anyone tried to make a big-deal Hollywood film from a kinky popular novel was Adrian Lyne’s laughably limp 1986 9 1/2 Weeks, in which Mickey Rourke smeared honey all over Kim Basinger’s body … and then buried her up to her neck in a broiling ant-infested desert!
No, wait, that last bit didn’t happen; I think it was part of a dream I had a few days later. I always get that bit mixed up.
The honey, though, that’s real (I think), and that’s about as close to BDSM as the onscreen antics ever get. Looking back on the whole misbegotten project, one can only conclude that Mr. Lyne was the sadist here, inflicting pain on Rourke (by casting him as, would you believe, an impeccably tailored sophisticate), Basinger (by siccing Rourke on her), and the audience (by making the film).
The problem, of course, was that MGM wasn’t about to release a mainstream feature with an X rating. (Jack Valenti hadn’t dreamed up the NC-17 yet.) Given the quality of the prose, it’s clear that the novel’s only attraction was its transgressiveness … which was systematically removed on its way to the multiplex. The result: a film in which two yuppies don’t inflict pain on each other. Ooooo, touch me.
The writing in Fifty Shades makes 9 1/2 Weeks author Elizabeth McNeill seem like Proust. Not surprising when you realize that Shades began life as an amateur knockoff of the already wretched Twilight books. (It just begs for the likes of this.)
So: You have a book whose notoriety and astronomical sales are entirely based on explicit sex scenes being translated into a medium that won’t allow explicit sex scenes. (Which didn’t stop the movie from taking in about a gazillion dollars in its first weekend.) With the sex curtailed, there’s nothing else even vaguely interesting remaining. And that may explain why Fifty Shades of [cinematic] Grey is so damn boring.
But that still leaves plenty more blame to go around. First off, the casting of Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey: Trustworthy folks tell me that he’s good on The Fall, but you’d never know it from his work here. Perhaps it’s the writing: Even Olivier wouldn’t have been able to raise up the level of the dialogue from sewage to, say, recyclable trash. (And this trash was already recycled.)
Grey isn’t recognizable as a person. He’s stiff and more than a little creepy, which other characters seem to suspect may reflect a confused sexual orientation. (Shifty Grades of Fey?) Don’t spoil it for me, but I suspect there will be a big reveal in later episodes explaining that he’s actually from the Crab Nebula and all the bland awkwardness has been brilliant foreshadowing.
Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia Steele is slightly more convincing, despite a back story so unlikely as to verge on science fiction. Her tiny little voice is not unlike that of her real-life mother, Melanie Griffith, which doesn’t hurt a bit.
The other characters are all from the Other Characters Discount Warehouse, where you can find a funloving roommate, a busybody mother, and a platonic friend who doesn’t want to stay platonic … all at low, low prices! Come on down!
There was an opportunity here to slather on a thick coating of style, but director Sam Taylor-Johnson lacked either the inclination or the ability to juice things up a little. There’s a reason that people still watch Showgirls. Despite its many inanities, it was fun the first time around and it’s still fun, largely thanks to its over-the-top acting and visual style. The style of Fifty Shades of Grey is more evocative of a Tylenol commercial.