Good news: There are a couple of redeeming facets in Fifty Shades of Grey. A grateful America can relax and exhale, whether in theater seats or in your neighborhood bondage dungeon. The only thing we still have to suffer through is another week of titillating TV commercials and advertorials, but we’re used to that.
The biggest challenge in talking about the E.L. James/Kelly Marcel/Sam Taylor-Johnson/Universal Pictures romance — the epitome of naughty-but-nice, a putatively “daring” display of sadomasochistic themes intended for mainstream consumers — is to do so in non-mercantile terms. That’s difficult because every phase of this property has been carefully merchandised, pre-fabbed for maximum sales impact, primed to squirt before the audience actually sits down. But then that’s the case with every other movie at the plex — so we’ll let the juicy ad/publicity campaign slide even though it’s a story in itself.
Anastasia “Ana” Steele (appealingly played by Dakota Johnson) is a shy, bookish Portland, Oregon college English major who works part-time in a hardware store, yet yearns for a riptide of passion to carry her away. That riptide takes her all the way to Seattle, where Christian Grey dwells (Northern Irish actor Jamie Dornan, from TV’s The Fall), one of the country’s leading billionaire bachelors. Their “school-newspaper-interview” meet-cute doesn’t show the tiniest bit of imagination. Neither do their individual circles of friends and family.
The only place they light up — the only reason they’re standing before us — is in their sessions inside playboy Grey’s hideously well-stocked BDSM playroom at his penthouse, where he introduces nice-girl Ana to some mild bondage and discipline, to go along with their standard bonking. It’s all highly consensual, of course. Grey insists on an avalanche of non-disclosure agreements, pre-ropes quitclaims, and a lengthy user’s manual before he actually gets around to flogging her. She doesn’t like being beaten, so at the end of Part One, Ana and Grey’s relationship is at a crossroads. There’s really no spoiler to alert anyone about at the end of 125 minutes of conspicuous consumption. Boom. To be continued.
Unfair as that tease may seem, it frees us to examine minor considerations like plot, character motivation, the minute scar on Ana’s right ass cheek, etc. There’s no point in running down a list of all the things this movie is not, or of the filmmakers who have done this type of exploitation more skillfully. The list would be endless. In outline, the film is no different than a Barbara Stanwyck pre-Code Hollywood shocker from the 1930s — just add harnesses and cat o’ nine tails.
Johnson, daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, exudes an attractive innocence as Ana and, at the right moment, a steely resolve to have it her way. That’s where the franchise is heading. We’ll have to let the movie take care of itself in the sequels, but for now it’s enough to focus on Ana. Grey may be crass and calculated, but Johnson saves it from being completely forgettable.