Why did I go see Fifty Shades Darker?
I didn't see Fifty Shades of Grey. I haven't read the series of books, nor do I have any intention to do so. I have no interest in the BDSM community. So why did I go out on a Saturday morning and spend $8.67 to see the 10:30 AM showing of the sequel to the smash hit? Probably because I hate myself. That's definitely part of it. I put out a poll on Twitter, fully knowing that my followers would delight in seeing me force myself to watch softcore porn for middle-aged mothers. Essentially, I think it boils down to curiosity, from many perspectives. For one, this is an installment of a mega-blockbuster franchise that has a score of 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. That doesn't happen too often, and I've seen and read many reviews that feature film critics pulling their hair out because of how atrocious these films are. I had to see if it was truly that bad. But on the flip side of things, I was also curious to understand the appeal of this series. People love this stuff, and despite the labels, I needed to see it for myself.
After watching the film, I can't say I get much of the hype on either side. Fifty Shades Darker is not a masterpiece of kinky trash, nor is it the most terrible film ever. It's a horrible movie- don't get me wrong about that. But for whatever reason, it's somewhat watchable, garbage writing glossed over with a generic, sterile visual style. And yet, while it doesn't belong in the "worst movie ever" category, I still can't say that I understand the appeal. The sex scenes aren't that sexy, the relationship isn't that compelling, and the story certainly isn't up to snuff. It's just a flat, bad movie- clean, shiny, fairly stupid, and instantly disposable. It's longer than it should be, it's completely aimless, and it doesn't really deliver the goods in any memorable way. I didn't hate myself all that much, but man, this whole series is still a mystery to me.
Picking up after their untimely breakup at the end of the original, Fifty Shades Darker continues the romance of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). As the film begins, Ana learns that Christian really wants her back- he buys her flowers, purchases oversized pictures of her at an art gallery, and seems to be following her around. Ana agrees to have dinner with him, and they agree to a new relationship with no boundaries, no lies, and no secrets. But just as Ana and Christian fall farther into their love/lust relationship, Ana begins to learn the darkest mysteries of her enigmatic boyfriend's life. First, there's Leila (Bella Heathcote), Christian's suicidal ex who begins to creepily stalk Ana. Then there's also Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger), the older woman who introduced Christian to the world of sexual dominance.
And there's the matter of Christian's birth mother, who left a permanent impact on his life. From the opening scene, this is the closest Fifty Shades Darker comes to having any kind of emotional storyline, as we see the tragic circumstances of Christian's childhood. Oh, and I forgot to mention the issue of Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Ana's boss who displays an intense hatred for Christian and a clear desire to be with Ana. As the couple moves closer to a serious relationship, Christian will have to confront his inner demons, while Ana will have to come to terms with the level of control her complex boyfriend has over her life.
So did you get all that? Do you understand the nuances and intricacies of the Fifty Shades universe? Seriously, this film is virtually plotless. There were times where I'm fairly sure that I audibly said "What the hell are we doing here?" I was tempted to take a nap in the comfy new recliners in my local theater, not because of how terrible it was, but because literally nothing happens. Anything of dramatic consequence occurs in the reunion between Ana and Christian in the first five minutes of this film, and everything else simply exists as filler interspersed between the sex scenes. I guess you could say that the whole Jack Hyde thing is significant for the future of the franchise, but the cliff-hanger and end credits mini-trailer just made me groan. I'm not an avid watcher of soap operas, but I imagine that the Fifty Shades franchise is just a glossier version of the trash that ABC airs every day. If you ever wanted to see a soap with more oil, leg spreaders, and nudity, then this franchise is probably for you. If not, you're in for an aimless afternoon at the theater.
The disappointing thing for me is that I actually like these two actors quite a bit. Dakota Johnson is terrific in Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash, while Jamie Dornan truly shined in last summer's World War II thriller Anthropoid. But not even Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep could make these characters interesting, and we're just basically left with two pretty people having sex in increasingly ludicrous ways. Dornan plays your stereotypical mystery man, who buries such intense pain that you could practically tattoo "Damaged" on his forehead. On the other hand, Johnson barely plays a character at all- all of her concerns and hesitations about her unhealthy relationship vanish as soon as Christian takes his clothes off. Most of the scenes center around these two characters, but it's not like there's much relief in the supporting cast. I know that I didn't see the original film, but almost every single minor player is severely underdeveloped to the point of futility.
But let's talk about why you're really here. You know what I'm talking about. Nobody is buying a ticket to Fifty Shades Darker for the plot or the acting. You're coming for the sex. The steamy, BDSM scenes between two incredibly attractive young celebrities. The question is this- are the scenes up to snuff? Oddly enough, not really. They're remarkably tame, deprived of any real passion, energy, or actual sex appeal. They feel like obligatory reprieves from the vapid plot- Christian and Ana have to have sex just for the audience to stay awake. Smooth pop songs play in the background during every scene, making the whole thing feel like a softcore porno set to "Now, That's What I Call Music!" All of the scenes are short, and nobody seems all that interested in what's going on. It's just all very bland, which pretty much sums up this whole thing.
James Foley is best known for directing Glengarry Glen Ross, Perfect Stranger, and several episodes of House of Cards, and that glossy, cold, bleak approach shows throughout this film. Foley clearly has fun staging the sexual interludes, and he's great at making everything as shiny and clean as humanly possible. However, he's still stuck with the fact that he's directing a Fifty Shades film. Foley occasionally embraces the over-dramatic tone (the end credits teaser of "Next year, on Fifty Shades Freed"), but there isn't enough unintentional humor or unchecked insanity during this film. For whatever reason, Darker is a fairly restrained film, safe and careful in its cinematic portrayal of sexual deviancy. In a perfect world, a talented filmmaker like Foley would have taken the garbage that Niall Leonard and E.L. James gave him and turned it into something gleefully stupid and sensational, something truly worth embracing.
Instead, we get a movie that doesn't really do any of that. It sits limply on the screen, going through the motions as its haphazard plot unfolds erratically, without any sense of direction or purpose. The acting is bad, there's no story, and the main event(s) is an unquestioned letdown. It's slick enough to be tolerable, but not trashy enough to be entertaining. Fifty Shades Darker is a bloated, overlong mess, and the fact that it doesn't deliver the goods makes it even more bizarre. As the Fifty Shades trilogy reaches its conclusion next year, I can only hope that things get more ridiculous. Because if it's this boring and safe again, I don't know if I'll be able to handle it. If you're gonna make a borderline pornographic romance about BDSM, it can't be as humdrum as this.
THE FINAL GRADE: C- (5.1/10)
Image Credits: Coming Soon, IMDB