Fifty Shades of Grey already stands as the most controversial and infamous movie of 2015. The movie is also a trainwreck, as has been well-publicized at this point, though not for the reasons that you may think.
With a movie adapted from an infamously trashy source novel, one would at least hope for the kind of trainwreck that is unintentionally hilarious, amusing, and sub-consciously proud of its own unrelenting and inevitable awfulness. That’s not what we have here. Instead, we have a doomed adaptation that takes itself far too seriously, and in its efforts for the almighty dollar that will inevitably come from such an undeserved level of popularity, the worst since The Twilight Saga that inspired this dreck, I’m afraid, it just winds up feeling like an arrogant, self-important production with an undeserved delusion of grandeur, again, much like The Twilight Saga.
I don’t exaggerate when I claim that this movie was bound to fail on every level of quality either, since it was plagued with production troubles right from the start, including a delay out of a planned 2014 release, which seems to be a recurring movie theme this February. Big shock, I know. The movie’s initial leading man, Charlie Hunnam bowed out due to scheduling conflicts, and was replaced with Jamie Dornan, a former model who has a spectacular lack of chemistry with female lead, Dakota Johnson, but that’s only the beginning. Since the novel’s writer, E.L. James was given an absurd amount of creative control over the movie’s production, James constantly and often aggressively clashed with the movie’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, leading to uncomfortable actors and atmosphere that’s pretty noticeable throughout the movie. That’s before you consider the Universal executives keeping production under a microscope on top of that, with the MPAA and some of the producers pushing for an NC-17 rating at every turn, which would have meant that the movie couldn’t be shown at any major theatre chains, and obviously, Universal refused to let that happen.
Thus, Fifty Shades of Grey, while disappointingly very profitable for Universal, is also a testament to Hollywood recklessness, particularly with its aggressively tasteless Valentine’s Day marketing, but not because of its subject matter. It’s not impossible to do a story about an abusive relationship or BDSM habits tastefully, or in an evocative, effective way that is worth experiencing. It’s not impossible to adapt this controversial novel, and make a superior film out of it. The film we got however, misses the mark so widely, and yet seems so oblivious to how badly it has failed, that the only result it could possibly be met with by just about any audience is contempt and hatred, regardless of your prior history and/or level of approval of the source novel.
Fifty Shades of Grey is led by one Anastasia Steele, an undergrad student in Washington who manages to secure an interview with attractive young billionare, Christian Grey, who runs a company that does… Something that the script forgot to mention. Christian Grey, a man who seems to have every woman ever fawning over him at all times (seriously, it’s one of the only points where the movie remembers to be unintentionally hilarious), then falls aggressively in love with Anastasia for… Reasons, and for a CEO, he sure seems to have a lot of free time on his hands on that note. The movie follows Ana and Christian bumbling about a relationship-in-the-making, despite Christian claiming that he can’t have a conventional relationship (ignoring all of the moments when he enjoys a conventional relationship in this movie), and that his tastes are more… “Singular”, as he puts it.
Yes, the big sticking point and character identifier of the kinky Christian Grey is that he’s really into BDSM, and the meek, virginal Ana gets sucked into that world… Eventually. Most of the movie’s pacing is so slow and off-key, that she spends most of the story simply quietly wandering around, not doing much of anything, beyond musing about Christian.
This might have been acceptable, had Ana not been interchangeable with a blob of grey sludge. Her character is so white bread and straight-laced that she becomes boring and unremarkable. Yes, it’s clearly a device meant to invite women to insert themselves into her shoes, but for male viewers like me especially, this makes her a maddeningly dull protagonist. Dakota Johnson doesn’t even seem to be allowed to truly emote either, with the most emotion she shows being teary eyes and a mildly cracking voice. It’s a very thankless performance, since the horrendous script and contested direction is clearly giving her nothing to work with.
Likewise, Christian, while barely the more interesting of the two leads, is a brick himself for the most part, and just seems to do as the script demands, rather than having a consistent character arc. Like I said, despite his continuous claims that he is incapable of a conventional relationship or conventional sex, he spends most of the movie’s first half participating in exactly that. Then, around the halfway point, he suddenly does a heel-turn, pushing safety contracts and domineering punishment when Ana does anything he doesn’t like, simply to create drama when the story clearly doesn’t have enough to go on. You could infer that he’s meant to be highlighted as a hypocrite and an abuser, but that would probably be giving this idiotic plot and asinine script far too much credit.
Given that Ana is boring and Christian is flat, this also creates another issue that sinks the entire movie more than anything else; It’s a movie banking itself on sex, that isn’t the least bit sexy. Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie, is about as sexy as a tooth cleaning at the dentist. The subject matter is clearly neutered, but that’s not the true problem. The problem is that the lead performances are so out-of-sync and so uncomfortable, that it feels like Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan were actually filmed in two separate locations on opposite sides of the country, and inserted next to each other in post-production. They have no chemistry whatsoever (their lack of chemistry was even highlighted and mocked by many people long before the movie hit theatres), and that removes all of the potential sizzle from the film adaptation, which will no doubt leave even most fans of the novel feeling very disappointed.
There are other characters in the movie, but honestly, none of them truly matter, as they’re all slabs of cardboard. Ana has a roommate and Christian has a brother, and they hook up, and… Nothing. No relevance to the plot. Likewise, Ana has a childhood friend who comes on to her, and… He’s never seen again past the opening minutes. Worst of all is that Christian has an interesting relationship with his mother, with his mother’s friend being a core part of who he came to be, something that wasn’t even brought up until the sequels in the case of the novels, and the movie does absolutely nothing with these revelations. Hell, the mother’s friend is not even seen on-screen, despite being a crucial character! What’s the point of taking such a massive liberty with the books, and then doing absolutely nothing with it?!
If there’s anything that defines the characters of this movie, it’s incompetence on the part of the script, because there sure as hell isn’t anything else! Characters are boring at best, and detestable at worst. Christian is perhaps supposed to be unlikeable for most viewers, but the movie can’t even commit to that! It constantly wants you to feel sorry for him, but that sympathy is never truly earned. Sure, the movie is content to tell you all about how sexy Christian apparently is, and sure, the movie is content to go on about how tragic Christian’s background is, and how much of a guarded virgin Ana apparently is, but this is all breaking a crucial rule of filmmaking of any kind; SHOW, DON’T TELL!
Between the abysmal script, the detached performances and the general lack of sexiness, Fifty Shades of Grey couldn’t have botched its character work more if it tried.
Fifty Shades of Grey barely has enough plot to fill a thimble, and yet the movie sees fit to stretch itself over an agonizing two-hour runtime. Again, most of the entire movie is spent chronicling the increasingly absurd budding relationship between billionaire dom, Christian Grey, and virginal sub, Ana Steele. There really is no more to it than that.
The story of this movie is aggressively unmemorable, sustaining itself entirely on controversy for naysayers, and BDSM fetishism for fans. It doesn’t even do the fetishism particularly well, since the movie is clearly trying to tiptoe around an NC-17 rating, and comes off as not really knowing what it’s talking about at the best of times. Granted, I am not into BDSM kink myself, but I have the unmistakable feeling that it doesn’t work in the sense that the movie portrays it, something that has been backed up by official BDSM communities slamming the movie as being very misinformed, and spreading negative stereotypes about their sexual tastes.
Again though, that’s really it. There’s no more to the movie beyond its laughably impotent attempts to make women horny. As for the men, they’ll probably just feel dirty and disgusted, since they’ll no doubt feel like they’re being portrayed in a very offensive fashion here, not just with Christian, but with pretty much every male character in the movie being a sex-obsessed pig.
It’s all made worse by the sickening conceit with which the movie presents its story as well, acting as if it’s so much smarter than it really is. There’s no depth, there’s no charm, and yet, the movie plods on as if it’s ahead of the curve with the human condition, particularly in the bedroom. Its fatal inability to realize its own ineptitude is reckless at best, and reprehensible at worst, constantly displayed by its inconceivably horrible dialogue, which has all of the storytelling flair of your drunk ex-girlfriend puking in your mailbox; Not only disgusting, but also irrevocably embarrassing.
Sam Taylor-Johnson really seemed to give Fifty Shades of Grey an honest effort in some places. To her credit, she tries not to shy away from the movie’s tougher questions, crappy script be damned, and doesn’t constantly try to frame the relationship between Ana and Christian as a good thing, per se.
Then again, her direction only amounts to so much, with so many elements working against her at every turn. The scenes where E.L. James clearly got in her way are very noticeable, as these are the stiffest and most ill-conceived scenes of the lot, and even in the better scenes, Taylor-Johnson can’t seem to wring any real chemistry out of Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. Later in the movie, you can tell that Taylor-Johnson has more blatantly thrown up her hands, as the sense of intrigue that was somewhat there in the movie’s beginning moments then disappears entirely, along with any sense of real effort. The abrupt, pseudo-cliffhanger conclusion that comes out of nowhere at the movie’s end feels like the largest testament to its helmer just giving up on it in the end.
Still, it’s admirable that Taylor-Johnson would attempt anything at all with this thankless adaptation, and her direction is one of the things that Fifty Shades of Grey almost pulls off decently. Almost. It’s still not nearly enough to redeem anything, unfortunately, particularly since it feels like Taylor-Johnson has no real power when it actually counts.
Perhaps the biggest shock behind Fifty Shades of Grey is that the music is composed by Danny Elfman. Yes, that Danny Elfman! The Danny Elfman that composed the iconic theme songs of Batman and The Simpsons, and scored some of the most beloved movies of all time. Oh, how the mighty have fallen…
Elfman’s score is completely devoid of character or charm, much like the rest of this adaptation. It’s the most unremarkable soundtrack he’s ever done, by far, and it’s so understated and apathetic that it might as well not even be there. The only noteworthy entry to the soundtrack is that remixed version of “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce Knowles, which played all over this movie’s trailers, and kicks up in one key sex scene too. It’s an ok remix, on the sheer basis that it’s the one semi-memorable track, but it still fails to give the audio any real degree of steamy appeal.
The movie might as well have been silent. Its audio is no more effective than the movie’s cringe-worthy dialogue.
Obviously, there aren’t any real special effects or anything of the sort to speak of, but I will offer one tiny bit of praise on this note. Fifty Shades of Grey is at least reasonably well-produced. The sets have some style to them, the atmosphere is not completely non-existent, and the novel does come to life on the big screen with some degree of effectiveness. When you first see Christian’s ‘playroom’ for example, which is where he hides all of his kinky gear, the effect is achieved, since the room really is awe-inspiring and well-realized. It’s the only point where audiences will connect with Ana, who shares their bewildered awe at seeing such a remarkable place for the first time.
That however is where my praise ends. Even though there’s some competence behind the movie’s style, it certainly doesn’t merit an IMAX release, with Fifty Shades of Grey being featured in select theatres in North America in an IMAX cut. That’s downright insulting to the intelligence of moviegoers, and unsurprisingly, this isn’t a movie that needs to be in IMAX. The IMAX elements add nothing to proceedings, and while the atmosphere isn’t completely blank, it’s not nearly palpable enough to justify paying several additional dollars, just to watch the same movie on a bigger screen. It’s a very unabashed rip-off, and there’s no justification for watching Fifty Shades of Grey in that enhanced format.
Credit where credit is due, at least the novel is realized well. Too bad the novel isn’t much better than this terrible movie.
Fifty Shades of Grey is an adaptation so incompetent, so ill-advised and so careless with its subject matter, that it’s already a frontrunner for one of this year’s worst overall movies, and that may not shock people. The fact that it’s competing against 2015’s first truly great movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, is an egregious insult, made worse by the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey predictably made far more money at the box office.
It should go without saying, but this is not a movie that is worth your time. Don’t see it. Don’t let your friends see it. If a date tries to bring you to it, break up with them. Even if you want to watch it ironically, don’t even do that. The movie isn’t hilariously bad, it’s just aggressively, hatefully bad. It’s a movie that will make you miserable, assuming it doesn’t put you to sleep first. Worse than being a laughable trainwreck, it’s a dull, conceited trainwreck, with virtually no real sex appeal, and nothing but shame to carry it.
Again, it’s not impossible to adapt this story, and it’s not impossible to make a good story from this subject matter. By all means, you have every right to hate this unmitigated disaster of a film, but don’t hate it because of what it portrays. Hate it because it portrays it so ineptly. Its failure to smartly address its own controversy just makes it come off as a juvenile attempt at true steaminess, not to mention a pitiful one.
And the worst part of it all? Universal wants to adapt the sequels. God help us, if this first movie’s quality is any indication of what we’re in for next.
- Some of the sets look decent
- Horrendous performances, devoid of real chemistry
- Story is aggressively idiotic and un-entertaining
- Not the least bit sexy, and often very boring