Movie Review: “50 Shades of Grey” (Rated R)

(NEW YORK) — I had zero interest in reading Fifty Shades of Grey, or writing a review comparing the movie to the book. Now, if someone tied me to a bedpost and forced me to read it while lightly flogging me with Cinnabons, I’d be so into it.

By the way, if this review becomes too much to handle, your safe word is “Kanye.”

Our beautiful love story commences when Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) volunteers to interview 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her roommate, Kate, a journalism major who’s battling a cold. Anastasia shows up at Grey’s office wearing an outfit that looks like Maria von Trapp made it out of curtains, while her body language screams timid.  On the other hand, she does have a 4.0 GPA, pouty lips and big blue eyes. So, there’s that.

Christian Grey’s dazzling office is completely staffed by women who look like they were hired by a Nordic head-hunting company specializing in Victoria’s Secret models.  When we first meet Grey, he’s standing in his office before floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Seattle. It’s stunning shot, but also makes Grey — Dornan, actually — seem far less intimating than he’s meant to be. He’s clearly a handsome fella but I had a difficult time with his physicality, especially in the scenes when he’s being a “dominant.” But first, let’s discuss what works.

Grey’s initial odd but endearing courtship of Anastasia is amusing.  He unexpectedly shows up at the hardware store where Anastasia works and asks her to help him find cable ties, masking tape and some rope.  The audience is in on the joke, but Anastasia isn’t, and Johnson plays it like a pro. Dornan, however, as the handsome, confident and mysterious suitor, gets by at this point on his natural charm. He’s still not quite the presence he needs to be.

The two are falling for one another. That’s a problem for Grey because, as he tells Anastasia, he doesn’t do romance. He has a singular interest — one that involves floggers, nipple clamps, spanking paddles, handcuffs, and an adorable rabbit named Mr. Peanut.  (Fine, there’s no rabbit.)  Christian explains to Anastasia that he’s what’s called a “dominant” and he would like her to be his “submissive.” It requires signing a contract with very specific rules about how she’s supposed to behave and take care of herself.

Anastasia’s supposedly conflicted about whether to sign, but there’s never really enough doubt shown to make it believable. And while Grey’s conflicted about his feelings toward Anastasia, feelings that may extend beyond his dominant-submissive relationship, it generates almost no dramatic tension. It’s boring.

It’s fair to say, the sensual nature of some of the BDSM scenes in this movie isn’t something you’d normally find in a mainstream film, but based on the mythology surrounding the 50 Shades of Grey novel, or at least the media narrative about it, the sex scenes are rather timid. Dornan, whom I’m sure both women and some men alike will find appealing when he’s mostly naked, wasn’t particularly convincing in those scenes. He seemed uncomfortable, not like the BDSM veteran Grey is supposed to be.

What may be more surprising than the sex scenes is some of the dialogue, particularly Grey’s response to Anastasia when she asks him if he’s going to make love to her now (I’m not going to spoil it for you).  But then, I believe the sex is just window dressing for the real fantasy here: Anastasia’s ability to change Christian.

Let’s talk about Dakota Johnson. The daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson is easily the best thing in Fifty Shades of Grey. As Anastasia Steele, she’s the perfect blend of innocence and confidence; a stealthy heartbreaker who at first comes across as mousey and innocent, but suddenly and convincingly becomes confident and coquettish. On the other hand, as Christian Grey, Dornan does everything he’s asked to do, but he’s just not the intimidating, confused, tortured presence he’s supposed to be.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson could’ve done better with pacing and creating more dramatic tension.  Her best work came at the end of the movie, punctuating a film that had been largely devoid of dramatic tension and drama with a well-constructed, emotional moment that almost had me wanting to see what was next.

Two-and-a-half out of five stars.


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