I’m bummed. I had a dual review of two terrific recent films – both dealing with Russia past and present – all ready to go, but the Baltimore release dates of both have been pushed back. I was hoping to write about Leviathan – a nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and the one I hope will win, though Ida is also excellent) – and Red Army – each of which tackles questions of the human cost of Soviet and Russian totalitarianism, among other topics. It was not to be, at least not this weekend.
Instead, I’m left with <gasp> Fifty Shades of Grey, a film I had no particular desire to see, and which lived down to my lowest expectations (with one noted exception). I haven’t seen the other big film opening this weekend – Kingsman: The Secret Service – either, though this review by Manohla Dargis gives me enough pause that I may not see it. Then again, I liked Layer Cake, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class – all by the same director – so perhaps I’ll disagree with Dargis.
In any case, for now, it’s on to Fifty Shades, one of the most boring films about sex I have ever seen.
Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015)
I was never tempted, in any way whatsoever, to read the book (and its sequels) on which this movie is based, in spite of its global success. Originally inspired as Twilight fan fiction (Twilight being another book series that I avoided, though I did, sadly, watch the movies), the series received mostly derisive (but also guilty-pleasure) reviews while racking up big bucks – plus a picture deal – for its author, E.L. James. It told the story of virginal college student Anastasia Steele, who meets handsome young gazillionaire Christian Grey – a man with serious control (and other) issues and a taste for kink – and plunges into a sadomasochistic relationship in which he is the dominant and she the submissive. Except that plucky young Ms. Steele doesn’t quite take to the lifestyle as Mr. Grey might want, making the central conflict of the book (and series) the question of whether or not Anastasia can change (or heal) Christian and mold him into the man she would prefer to love: rich, strong, and like, totally into her but without the whips and chains.
Since I haven’t read the book, I cannot tell you where the movie, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (who also made Nowhere Boy, and is, coincidentally, the wife of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, star of Kick-Ass, which I mentioned, above), departs from its source material. I can tell you, however, that based on what is on screen, if this is what BDSM is all about, I’ll take a pass, as I like to think of sex as an alternately exciting, romantic and intimate – or, ideally, all three – communion between two (or more, let’s not judge) consensual souls, and what we get here is none of that. Instead, we have two actors who look bored in each other’s presence going through the motions of sex (and bondage) with neither zest nor passion. Say what you will about the artistic merits of a film like Nine 1/2 Weeks – an obvious comparison – but the characters played by Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger seemed, at a minimum, to enjoy being in each other’s presence. Unfortunately for Ms. James’s fan base, there is no chemistry whatsoever between the heretofore little-known Dakota Johnson (Need for Speed) – daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) – and her co-star Jamie Dornan (Flying Home).
At least Ms. Johnson is fun to watch, much to my surprise (my noted exception, from above). She’s got moxie. Based on my reaction to the nauseating trailer, I expected to not only loathe the film, but both actors, as well. Instead, I found myself thoroughly won over by the young female lead. Until the tedium of the script and listless sex scenes take over the movie, Ms. Johnson livens up every scene she is in (which is most) with her winsome spirit and energy. It’s not her fault that the source text requires her to bite her lip like a schoolgirl, and she makes the most of what opportunities there are to rise above the material. The same cannot be said for Mr. Dornan, an actor with the screen presence of days-old meatloaf. This is a man who, at 27, has somehow managed to amass a huge fortune and create a vast empire? I don’t think so. Granted, his is a thankless task: he has to somehow incarnate a man who has to be strong, sexy, dominant, yet also somehow vulnerable. I’m sure that greater actors than Mr. Dornan would fail, as well. And yet, it would have been nice to see him actually try. Can you imagine Mickey Rourke wining after the fact about how he hates seeing his “bum” on screen? Hey, nobody forced you to make this awful movie, dude; could you not even try to match Dakota Johnson’s effort?
Leaving aside the politics of whether we need, in 2015, yet another Cinderella fantasy of the poor girl offered a life of pleasure and leisure by a fantastically rich man, or whether or not a film about a dominant-submissive relationship is appropriate for Valentine’s Day – all besides the point for those who just want a naughty escapist movie to watch – the greatest sin of this movie is that it is just so absolutely, dreadfully boring. “I’m 50 shades of f***-ed up,” utters the tortured Mr. Grey. If only he really were, then we might have something interesting on our hands.
Here’s a suggestion for you, if you’re into what the story promises, yet fails to deliver: stay in and rent last year’s Venus in Fur this weekend, instead. You’ll have a better – and sexier – time.