The contract reads "binding." Get it?
In Fifty Shades of Grey, a film that arrives with more hype than the Super Bowl and the final episode of Breaking Bad combined, the virginal English major Anastasia Steele and the high-powered entrepreneur Christian Grey sit across a conference table in a sleek Seattle skyscraper, negotiating the clauses in a legal document in which she is "the submissive," and he "the dominant." Handcuffs and ropes, fine, she agrees. Masking tape, no, thank you.
Let the Marquis de Sade business - de Sade Lite - begin.
Millions of readers already have made their contract with E.L. James, author of the best-selling romance novel - one kitted out with kinky accoutrements - and they should be the final arbiters of whether the screen adaptation, from writer Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson, is faithful and fully realized. (Two more Fifty Shades volumes have followed, and the box office will determine whether movie versions are in the offing.)
For E.L. James illiterates like me, Fifty Shades of Grey is a puzzle. Isn't the stuff of bondage and discipline, sexual role play, silky blindfolds, and whips and floggers supposed to be, well, exciting? So why does this movie, with its montaged sex scenes (to the sultry coo of Beyoncé, among others), feel so lethargic? Even the private helicopter ride and the glider ride and the elevator ride (wherein he throws himself at her) have a numbing vibe, TV commercial clichés.
Casting, and Hollywood convention, I think, are partially to blame.
Dakota Johnson, who brings wry humor and piercing blue eyes to the role of Ana, is easily this movie's most pleasant surprise. The actress talks in a kind of mellifluous monotone (remindful of Hitchcock muse Tippi Hedren, her grandmother) and carries herself with assurance, even when the moment calls for Ana to feel faint, or drunk, or both. But you have to question Ana's judgment: The heroine who has been waiting for the proverbial Mr. Right to come along falls for this smug dude in the fancy suits and the propensity to say stuff like, "I don't do romance" and, "My tastes are very singular."
As portrayed by the Irish-born Jamie Dornan, who looks like a Calvin Klein model - and who was one - Christian Grey comes off as the worst kind of control freak: a boring one. There's no depth to this guy, and his third-act confession about the nature of his origins (as the tables inevitably begin to turn between the submissive and the dominant) is both an unintentional hoot and a canard. (Sure, blame it on the prostitute mom - Don Draper did.)
Christian sends Ana a set of Thomas Hardy first editions (Tess of the d'Urbervilles was the book for Ana), buys her a MacBook and a car, and offers to set her up in his apartment, where she can decorate her bedroom any way she likes. And then when he summons her, it's off to the Red Room, a den well stocked with expensive leather and metal devices, ropes and pulleys, designed to dole out pleasure and pain. The rules are clearly defined, the "safe words" that will call everything off have been set.
Still, is he capable of real violence? Dornan's performance is so one-note the question hardly presents itself. Maybe he's a sociopath, but he comes off like a well-tailored cipher, a chiseled marionette.
Fifty Shades of Grey has a lot of nudity, but in studio moviedom's hoariest sexist tradition, most of it is female. The camera never goes full frontal on Dornan, the shots discreetly framed when he pulls off his pants - but most of the time he keeps his pants on. (A jokey metaphor about "control"? He wears the pants in this family?)
There's real hypocrisy here. If a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey is supposed to offer a voyeuristic experience - and not a ridiculous experience - have some integrity about your nudity. Despite what the filmmakers may want to believe, there isn't a lot else going on here. Fifty Shades of Grey Matter, not so much.
Fifty Shades of Grey ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.
With Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 5 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.EndText