Here's something you might not have been expecting: Fifty Shades of Grey is a surprising amount of fun. It's smutty and sexy. It's a fun way to spend a few hours on a weeknight with 200 strangers, who will come to feel like your closest female friends. And most importantly, it's a reminder that women want to see themselves on screens, and will happily pay money to do so.
The Fifty Shades book series is centered on sex. The first book alone features hundreds of pages of erotic descriptions of sexual acts in billionaire Christian Grey's playroom. But the movie steps back from raunchy sex scenes, spending its time building out the story's protagonist, so she's more than just a walking cipher. And crucially, it gives audience members room to laugh at themselves and the ridiculous, ridiculous story they're being told.
The movie is, more than anything, about Ana; the books were not
In the books, Anastasia "Ana" Steele is an inconsistent character.
As Erin Gloria Ryan wrote for Jezebel, there are three different Anastasias: "Anastasia the human person; Anastasia's 'inner monologue,' an uptight librarian-type who is always peering over half-moon spectacles in judgment of Anastasia's moral choices; and Anastasia's 'inner goddess,' a sex-crazed Cathy cartoon who shows up during the middle of sexual encounters to, like, do the merengue."
In the movie, Ana (played by Dakota Johnson) becomes a real person. Without the over-dramatic inner monologue taking over everything, Johnson is able to use her body language to show audiences when Ana is frustrated, lonely, or even turned on. She's surprisingly subtle, especially for a film based on such an unsubtle book.
Ana is the sun the universe of this story revolves around. She carries the movie. Next to her, Christian (Jamie Dornan) is a dull, topless torso — he has no ambition beyond convincing Ana to be his submissive, and no real character development.
Whether or not these mindsets will continue will depend upon how the second and third books make their way to screen. (The first film's director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, is not signed for any prospective sequels, which are almost assured, thanks to the film's huge box office.) The following books hew toward celebrating marriage and Ana finally, truly submitting to Christian.
The first film barely hints at such things. Instead of the saucy, hysterical Johnson, the books give us a shell of a woman who, at 22, has no clue who she is, much less what she wants. The film version of Ana is equally lost, but thanks to Johnson's performance, that sense of being adrift is understandable and easy to empathize with.
At every moment, Fifty Shades of Grey is the story of Ana. She is the moral heft of the movie, as well as its sole dynamic character. Asking audiences to take everything in Fifty Shades of Grey completely seriously would have meant ruin. Instead, Johnson's excellent comedic timing makes the film surprisingly funny.
The movie is also firmly in her point-of-view. We don't see Christian Grey enter rooms when Ana doesn't see him do so. Taylor-Johnson films many of their sexual experiences through a camera placed over Ana's shoulder.
Hollywood needs more movies for and about women
Too often, women in film are placed in positions of inferiority or submission. They don't make their own decisions or control their own destinies. What's fascinating is how Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie literally about positions of dominance and submission, never allows Ana to become a truly submissive character, even when she's in sexually submissive positions. Yes, the script gets in the way of this from time to time, but Johnson's performance never wavers.
Take the scene where Ana and Christian negotiate the terms of their BDSM sexual relationship across a gigantic conference table. Johnson plays Ana as smart, funny, and highly capable, at least until the script requires her to ask, straight-faced, "What are butt plugs?" That's a failure of Kelly Marcel's script, but it's not a failure of either the character Ana or the actress, Johnson.
In fact, the film adaption of the first book of Fifty Shades of Grey is better than Hollywood's usual treatment of women. The movie easily passes the Bechdel Test — a litmus test used mostly to determine whether women are present in a movie as fully human characters, or only as plot devices for male characters to comment upon — by giving Ana a life outside of her relationship with Christian.
Amusingly, Christian is the one who is often turned into a bit player in Ana's story. He's the CEO of a multi-million dollar company, yet he seems to spend most of his time strategically placing himself near-enough to Ana to swoop in at any time.
There are plenty of moments that don't work. The film, like the book, struggles to portray BSDM in a positive light, create well-rounded characters (outside of Ana), and make Christian and Ana's relationship seem like something both of them actually want.
But the movie completely understands that Fifty Shades of Grey isn't a movie about Christian, even though his name is in the title. No, this is a movie about what Ana allows Christian to do to her. And that shift makes all the difference in taking this potentially problematic story and making it, at the very least, the story of a woman who seizes her own agency.
Women will see stories about women
When I saw Fifty Shades of Grey at 8 p.m. on a Thursday, my theater was 90 percent full. Most of the attendees were women. And for the most part, they seemed thrilled to see this movie, to see this realization of a book they had enjoyed so much. Fittingly, I hadn't been in an audience so saturated with excited women since the midnight showing of Twilight.
Fifty Shades of Grey, then, stands as further proof that women will pay to see movies that are smutty and silly and overdramatic just as quickly as men will. They want these movies to be made.
Women will pay to see films created to tell women's stories, no matter how silly. Fifty Shades has proved that all over again, making $8.6 million from Thursday preview sales alone. From Friday-Sunday the movie made $81.7 million dollars. That's the fifth highest opening weekend revenue for an R-rated movie ever. And it was written, directed, and all about a woman.
And even if this isn't a perfect movie, even if it has many of the flaws of its source material, Ana Steele, at the very least, deserves this success. She's a lot of fun to hang out with. Here's hoping Hollywood realizes why that is.