Based on the bestselling E.L. James novel that has somehow sold over 100 million (!) copies worldwide, Fifty Shades of Grey proves itself shockingly inept at being either a convincing romance tale or a tantalizing erotic thriller. It’s an oppressively dull and obnoxiously moody affair, one whose source material apparently originated as Twilight fan fiction and doesn’t seem to have improved much on the formula of its predecessor. I can’t speak for fans of the book, as I have not read it myself, but those who come into the movie uninitiated will no doubt leave the theater in confusion as to what the fuss was all about.
The story revolves around the chance meeting of journalism student Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson, and billionaire businessman Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan. The two have an instant and inexplicable connection, one that slowly leads to an obsessive sexual relationship revolving around bondage and sadomasochism. As their relationship progresses, Christian asks Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement that negotiates the terms of their relationship as a romantic couple and as BDSM partners. The latter half of the film alternates between softcore, Cinemax-level sex scenes and Christian doting on Ana to sign the aforementioned contract.
If it sounds boring, that’s because it is. There are many problems with Fifty Shades as a movie but at the foundational level, this story simply does not work. It’s phony and unconvincing every step of the way, led by two main characters who are one-dimensional and altogether uncompelling. Any attempts that there are of character development are sophomoric at best and laughable at worst, especially when it involves any of the secondary or tertiary characters. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue is as stilted and implausible as the film’s central relationship, with lines like “I’m incapable of leaving you alone” that will no doubt inspire torrents of giggles theater-wide.
This puts Johnson and Dornan in an unfavorable position, to say the least, and it’s clear that they’re doing the best that they can with the material. Unfortunately, it’s still not good enough. Johnson does bring some grace and intelligence to her role but Dornan gives a performance that seems like the result of director Sam Taylor-Johnson whispering “dark and mysterious” into his ear over and over again. Whether he’s sullenly draped over a grand piano or glumly jogging through busy Seattle streets, his Christian Grey ultimately proves to be a colossal bore who lacks the charm or charisma necessary for any level of engagement.
The highlights are few and far between. I did enjoy a playful negotiation scene between Ana and Christian that incorporated much needed moments of levity and self-awareness to the otherwise stifling proceedings. The handsome, if one-note, production design is also first-rate, though its only true goal is to make audiences drool over wide shots of Grey’s luxury high-rise penthouse. It could be argued that the film’s exaltation of wealth is more pornographic than any of its sex scenes. Regardless, Fifty Shades of Grey is nothing more than a transparent tease of a film.