“50 Shades of Grey” is mediocre sexploitation

Courtesy of Universal PIctures
Courtesy of Universal PIctures

It has been done. I went and saw “50 Shades of Grey” in a crowded room and didn’t get up to leave partway through. Let me preface this by saying that none of my interaction with the film would have happened were I not responsible for this review.

I fully expected this film to be so bad that I would laugh my way through the screening, earning the ire of every woman in the theater and entertaining the three boyfriends who were treating their significant others to an early Valentine’s Day present (I’m not even lying, this was the demographic of the room). Unfortunately, the flick didn’t manage to entertain me with its awfulness or pleasantly surprise me at all.

On to the movie itself though.

“50 Shades of Grey” tells the story of the ridiculously named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and her relationship with the equally preposterously named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). This is pretty much everything there is to the film as far as plot, and anything else that appears on screen is either to complicate their relationship or set up the next scene between just the two of them. For what it’s worth, the plot is hardly the focus of the film and mostly just serves as a tool to get the audience from one sex scene to the next.

This brings me to our bread and butter for the flick: the sex scenes. “50 Shades of Grey” is, at best, an aspiring sexploitation movie. Though initially a slow burn to the first time you see the two main characters nude, the sex scenes hardly stop for more than 10 minutes before the next one begins. On the whole, these scenes aren’t poorly directed either. Shots are kept interesting and seem to skirt skillfully around showing either actors’ genetalia (so kudos to the movie’s cinematographer Seamus McGarvey).

As it is, the ratio of poorly written dialogue-to-sex in the film is about 2:1 respectively, functioning as a vehicle for director Sam Taylor-Johnson to keep his actors nude. Unfortunately, this isn’t nearly as engaging as it would seem. The acting in the film is neither good enough nor bad enough across the board to make this as good as “The Secretary” or as entertainingly bad as “Twilight.” Jamie Dornan acts as though he is attempting to portray the world’s most eligible billionaire piece of wood, hardly ever seeming more involved in the events of the movie than the extras paid to look away from the camera.

God help me, here comes the one saving grace of the film: Dakota Johnson is a more-than-competent actress. There, I said it. I gave the movie a bit of praise. Johnson gives the film much more effort than her counterpart ever seems to have deserved, acting her way through scenes of seriousness and comedy alike with a skill that only accentuates Dornan’s complete lack of effort.

With the praise out of the way, let me tell you the ways in which it fails catastrophically.

Johnson acts so well, that by comparison, Dornan’s character Christian Grey seems sociopathic if not borderline psychotic. Moments in which Anastasia shows a genuinely charming show of humor and comedic timing are immediately followed by Grey delivering the most serial-killery lines I’ve heard since “Psycho.” As the two come closer, Grey’s way of distancing himself ends up boiling down to lines like “I don’t make love to anybody, I fuck them.” Given a charismatic actor, this could have been delightfully stupid (the same with a bad enough actor too), but as it stands, these scenes are just a soundtrack away from becoming the most prolonged slasher flick ever.

The sex scenes in the movie aren’t exactly well acted either, which is ridiculous considering that both actors are so pretty I shouldn’t have even been paying attention to how well they acted. However, Dornan didn’t fail to fail, and seemed out of place during the entirety of all the intimate moments, looking like he was just bored as he rubbed ice on Anastasia’s nipples (so I noticed some of the content). He doesn’t even look aggressive and scary enough when he is supposed to, showing himself to be the least invested “Dominant” that the world has ever known when he portrays the sadomasochistic relationship the movie is about.

“50 Shades of Grey” could easily have benefitted from a writer who understood the genre of sexploitation as well, as the majority of the movie is written just poorly enough that it is in no way entertaining, where it could be either absurdist or hyper-surrealist in its seriousness. Instead of going for Tinto Brass’ “Caligula,” the scenes seem like watching paint dry until the next time you can see attractive people without clothes. Even then, one of the attractive people looks like he’s watching paint dry.

Anybody who wants to see two perfect examples of the directions this film could have gone should either enjoy the excellence of James Spader in “The Secretary,” or the pure decadent overkill in “Caligula.” Either way, you’ll be more enthralled than you would be watching this.

I can’t recommend “50 Shades of Grey” in the least. It not only fails to be a character study of people engaged in a sadomasochistic relationship, but isn’t even bad enough to be entertaining like the “Twilight” movies before it. It stands as the perfect example of how not to make a movie: Bore the audience, and intercut sex scenes that are aesthetically pleasing but are still mostly banal (especially considering the way the movie treats them as being so scandalous).

Rating: 0.5 stars

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