by Adam Riske
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?
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.
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.”
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?