Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

by Adam Riske
My safe word is “Mortdecai.”

It would not be denigrating Fifty Shades of Grey to compare it to Twilight fan fiction, since that is how the novel originated. That being said I found Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie, to be better than Twilight. Take that for what you will. It’s like the not-terrible parts of the first Twilight movie with sex added. The movie as a whole is not particularly good (it has a lot of problems which I’ll get into), but it shouldn’t be a thing of ridicule either. It’s alright. I thought it would be laughable and it’s not. Fifty Shades of Grey is slightly better than I expected it to be.

Is it “mommy porn?” Yes. Fifty Shades of Grey feels safe and sanitized for mainstream audiences. It’s not edgy. If you’re going for hot sex scenes, this isn’t your movie. Those sequences are not very explicit or all that erotic, instead taking on the vibe of reading a romance novel (I’m assuming) or watching an underwhelming episode of “Skinemax” back in the day (I’m speaking from experience). It’s just sort of matter of fact. That unto itself should be seen as a failure, since I think we’re supposed to get excited (boners, hard nipples, the vapors) by this, right?
Mousy, virginal* literature student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) goes to interview billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) when her roommate comes down with a cold and is unable to go herself. During the interview, sparks fly and both find themselves sexually/romantically drawn to each other. Anastasia wants a relationship with Christian, whereas Christian wants Anastasia more for sexual encounters, specifically those in the BDSM variety. Despite Anastasia not agreeing to a BDSM relationship in writing, boning, the wild mambo and the hunka chunka ensue between the two. The remainder of the movie chronicles their back-and-forth relationship as Anastasia tries to get Christian to become more of a conventional boyfriend and Christian hounds Anastasia to sign an agreement to become submissive (to his dominant) in the aforementioned BDSM arrangement BECAUSE HE CAN’T LOVE!

So as you can see, this is a fucking ridiculous premise. And yet, as I said, I wasn’t giggling unintentionally at the movie. Why is that? It’s because the movie has a secret weapon: Dakota Johnson. She’s good -- really, really good in this movie. She’s appealing, hip, smart, funny, likeable and sexy, which caught me by surprise because I’ve seen her in minor roles before and she never left that kind of impact on me. If anyone deserves to pop off of this movie’s success, it’s her. I hope this role leads to a successful career for the actress. She grounds the entire movie and makes it seem like the filmmakers are more in on the joke than they probably are. The same cannot be said about her co-star, Jamie Dornan. He’s pretty bad (in a blank slate sense) but in a way that almost works to the movie’s benefit. It’s strange, but see if you can follow me. Dornan is supposed to be the dominant of the pair, but he’s so overmatched acting-wise by Johnson that the playing field feels more interesting, fair and far less misogynistic. I’m guessing, in the book, that the Anastasia character is weaker and more naïve than Christian Grey. Yet in the movie, Anastasia clearly has as much (or more) control over the situation as Christian does and that’s because of Johnson’s smart and challenging performance. It makes for an interesting power struggle. As for the pair’s chemistry, it’s ok but it should be electric.
Also, on the plus side, the movie does have something to say about relationships – how they cause us to do things we wouldn’t normally do in order to please the other person, what we are willing to give up by being in a relationship and what we can gain from being in one, etc. I’m also happy that the movie exists because it’s not ashamed of sex, which so many movies these days are. If we can have wanton violence in R-rated movies, then why not more sex? I hope that makes me sound more like a non-prude and less like a pervert but I think most people would agree with me on that point, right?

But I definitely want to talk about this movie’s problems, of which there are many. The most troubling is that I feel the movie is primarily caught up in its own fantasy and ignoring many of the implications of its story. Don’t kid yourself; this is a movie depicting an abusive relationship. I agree with many critics of the book on this point. Christian Grey is a constant nuisance (at best) or threat (at worst) in Anastasia Steele’s life as evidenced by his actions in this story which include stalking, intimidation and isolation tactics. The movie tries to excuse this in many ways, most of which are unconvincing. First, the movie excuses it because the sex is always consensual. Second, some of his behavior is joked about by Anastasia as being over-the-top, which I’m guessing is the way the filmmakers are letting that behavior off the hook. Third, and most troubling, because he’s rich and handsome I guess we’re supposed to be ok with his actions. This is such a copout. If the writer took away that Christian is rich, would Anastasia put up with any of his shit? In the story as presented, whenever he intrudes on her privacy, he makes up for it by manipulating her with some sort of extravagance – be it buying her a new car/computer or taking her for a ride in his glider/helicopter, etc. His treatment of her outside of the bedroom bugs me on a more fundamental level than what he asks of her in his “playroom.”
I also want to criticize the filmmakers for the movie’s awful cliffhanger ending. This is very much a case where the creators have lost their instinctive feel for telling a story and are using this installment as marketing for the next installment. This movie’s ending is so abrupt and unsatisfying that it’s almost a necessity to see the next movie in order to get any closure from the movie you just saw. It pulls the rug out from under you and it’s utter, cynical bullshit.

While this material begs for a more mature and incisive look at this relationship, Fifty Shades of Grey is more content with being an entertainment than anything else. The movie is very well-shot and beautiful to look at, which is a plus and as an experience (strictly on its terms) it’s provocative, sometimes entertaining, never boring and has a good sense of humor about itself. This is all because of the Dakota Johnson performance. It’s an acting job of sheer willpower over the material.

I want to see a movie that deals with this kind of relationship in a more realistic way, which I hear is Secretary, which I have not seen but will soon. Maybe that will cast Fifty Shades of Grey in a more negative light. As for now, I know I’m supposed to hate this movie but I didn’t. It’s fine despite having some huge problems. I’m not going to go along with the group (be it other critics or being a man in general), and throw shade at it just because it’s what is expected of me.

*I think it’s funny that Christian wants Anastasia to enter into a BDSM relationship with him even after discovering she’s a virgin. Isn’t that like someone offering you a stick of gum and you asking for the gum factory instead?

17 comments:

  1. Thanks for your review, Adam. I was wondering if the fact "Fifty Shades" was helmed by a first-time woman director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, would in any way affect the movie or if she'd just be a 'Yes' person for the studio. Sounds like, through the serendipity of Dakota Fanning's strong acting and James Dornan's well-documented uncomfortable feelings about playing Christian Grey (along with whatever Taylor-Johnson chose to emphasize in her direction of both actors) resulted in a movie that at the very least is not "Showgirls" bad. I might have to check this out... in a few months/years when it's streaming somewhere for free or at cheaper-than-a-Big Mac rental prices.

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    1. Dakota Fanning....interesting thought :)

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  2. She's not a first time director. She made Nowhere Boy a few years ago.

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    1. Nowhere Boy was not great either, but was buoyed by an excellent performance from Aaron Taylor Johnson as John Lennon (unlike the miserable Godzilla [2014] #FordBrody).

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    2. "Imagine there's no lizard. It's easy if you try." (Because there pretty much isn't.)

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    3. The fact that someone wrote "Ford Brody" on a script and then clicked "Save", staggers me.

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  3. Great review. I really enjoyed Secretary... surprising, or not, I think his name was Grey as well.

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  4. Speaking to the secret weapon of Dakota Johnson, I'm still annoyed her excellent series Ben & Kate didn't catch on a couple of years ago. She has a very nice comic presence and worked well with Nat Faxon as her brother,

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  5. Cheers Adam. That review went much better than expected, I was hoping for some vile, people I know who have read the books says they are better than the film though not very well written, its a pity about the ending, weve chatted before about when a movie sticks the landing it leaves you with a much better taste in your mouth, pun intended,

    I laughed too at the clever call back to Demolition man in there too. Very nice

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  6. I went and saw this last night with a theater full of giggling women who had a hard time being mature while watching a movie about a sexual relationship, so i was very annoyed by that.

    I also thought the movie was a little better than expected but the movies thin plot eventually hits a brick wall and there's no place for it to go so the characters ended up repeating their wants and needs a lot and the back half had me incredibly bored. I can't imagine 2 more movies out of this premise, it was stretched out pretty much to it's limits just in this movie.

    I do have a major crush on Dakota Johnson now and if it was someone less talented in that role I probably wouldn't have liked it much at alI. i didn't understand why her character loved this guy besides wanting him physically. Their emotional relationship never made much sense to me. I was fine watching it, I don't think it's a good movie but it's not a terrible one either it's just falls into that meh category for me.

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    1. Yeah, I'm dubious about the sequels. I'm not sure where they can take this story without it getting pretty soapy and trite.

      I think she loved him for a couple of reasons: 1) She was fascinated by him; as opposed to her college friend (who likes her but seems boring) and 2) She was a virgin and fell in love with the first guy she slept with

      Thanks for commenting!

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  7. This review is dead on. The film is a deeply confused piece of storytelling, but Dakota Johnson works wonders with a virtually unplayable character. And I, for one, really dug the ending. I mean, we all know there's more on the way, but I thought it was gutsy nevertheless.

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  8. And if Dolph Lundgren instead of Christian Slater was peeping inside Mary Stuart Masterson's window in "Bed of Roses", we'd have an entirely different movie. Cute guys can just get away with more.

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    1. Cute et riche. Don't forget the riche.

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    2. The Dolph movie would be called "Dead of Roses"

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  9. Just finished season 2 of "The Fall" (really good, btw!) and had no clue that's the guy from FSOG.

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