Two years ago, the film adaptation of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was released in theaters, bringing to life the first book in a poorly written trilogy that had recently awakened a very specific American desire: one that lives in the space where bondage, sappiness, doofiness, stalking, wealth, abs, and independent book publishing meet.
It’s the classic story of girl meets rich, hot sadist; girl thinks sadist is totes weird; sadist is hot enough that girl gives him a chance anyway; girl plays hard to get with sadist; girl gets punished by sadist by not playing hard to get enough; sadist loses girl.
Like the sting of an open hand on a bare butt cheek — the image this franchise so deliriously fetishizes — the cultural significance of Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t just in the initial spank but rather the yearning for what’s coming next. The first movie wasn’t spectacular, but it did have its bright moments, including a good performance from its female lead and some sly comedy. This sequel had momentum, and brought the promise of possibility.
Would Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) give Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) another chance? Would her lady parts ever get accustomed to the shifty, kinky nature of Grey’s list? Does Anastasia have parents, siblings, or relatives? How would Anastasia feel about starting with a plant, then maybe a pet, and then a relationship with a sadist? How does Anastasia feel about Hillary Clinton? Would she go to the March on Washington? Why was the first movie so skimpy on Jamie Dornan shirtless scenes? Doesn’t true progress mean the same number of shirtless Jamie Dornan scenes as topless Dakota Johnson ones?
We waited for 726 days. It’s been long enough. Clocking in at 118 minutes, the howling, entertaining maelstrom known as Fifty Shades Darker is finally here for our consumption.
It’s an expensive-looking compression of a luxury penthouse condominium and 14 sex scenes. At times, it feels less like a romance and more like a Tony Robbins motivational tape intended to convince reluctant souls that Jamie Dornan is indeed the man of their dreams.
“Yes, you can! YES, YOU CAN!” says the movie, pumping its fists with growing intensity. “If Dakota Johnson can be into this, you can too. He’s doing a shirtless plank on a pommel horse. ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”
The film hopes that if it douses you with 11* shirtless Jamie Dornan scenes, you will find yourself dizzy with desire.
(* The number is a bit higher if you count sex scenes and postcoital scenes as two separate scenes. I did not, though I did count morning-after scenes as separate scenes.)
It shouldn’t be this difficult; Dornan is in the upper echelon of the planet’s good-looking humans. But he’s just not that exciting to watch, as he is regulated to delivering smoldering looks and stale lines. The movie is more concerned with how Christian Grey looks (during, before, and after sex) than with actually turning Christian Grey into a person.
If there’s any specialness in this clunker, it’s when the movie emulates Anastasia’s humanity. It’s alluring when it isn’t trying so damn hard to convince you it’s sexy.
Anastasia was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.
When Fifty Shades Darker begins, some undetermined amount of time has passed since the first film. After teasing and pursuing the sentient bag of muscles and fumes of leather known as Christian Grey, Anastasia Steele is finally done with him. She has a new job at a publishing house as an assistant to Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), an attractive amalgam of dark magic, pomade, and autumnal men’s fashion.
But Ana’s separation from Christian doesn’t last too long, as he sends her flowers and shows up to see her in person.
Years of watching The Bachelor have ingrained in me the idea, however ridiculous, that to woo women, you must first take them to the sky (preferably in a helicopter) and then immerse them in water (preferably a hot tub). But per Ana, Grey needn’t do any of those things to win her back. All he has to do, she says, is tell her more about his past, including what he knows about his birth mother, who died when he was a young boy.
“My mom was an addict — crack.” Grey, unflinching, says over a glass of red wine. “Fill in the blanks.”
By the end of the film, this “reveal” that Grey’s mother was addicted to crack, and a Riddick poster that we see in Grey’s childhood bedroom, are the only character-building tidbits we get.
But this is good enough for Ana.
Because though Ana doesn’t always make the best decisions, she knows that Christian Grey is a handsome billionaire who likes Riddick. And if a handsome billionaire who likes Riddick and is totally great at sex 87 percent of the time says he wants you back, and asks you to fill in the blanks of his mom’s crack addiction — you grab a pencil and make it move.
Dakota Johnson is the movie’s only draw, and she’s stifled with bad lines
Johnson’s ambiguous performance as Ana is one of the more beguiling things about the movie, which usually traffics in the (poorly written) explicit and literal.
Christian is all about smolder, wanting someone forever, and grand, poetic soul bearing. Ana, when she’s not in the throes of sex, is an aimless goof. Johnson understands this, leans into the obvious and not-so-obvious comedy of the whole Fifty Shades saga, and manages to imbue Ana with warm, hilarious life.
At certain points in the movie, it feels like she’s just trolling Christian to get him into bed. “I think the second one,” she says, barely offering up a fart of enthusiasm in response to Christian saying he doesn’t know whether he should worship her or spank her.
It’s not just Christian that Ana douses her with millennial ennui. Her lecherous boss Jack gets the brunt of it too. He informs her that she must attend a book expo in New York City with him, which she cancels on because Christian tells her to. It’s important for her career, Jack says, reminding her that the trip was a commitment to her job.
“It is my dream job,” she says about her role as an assistant at an independent publishing company, and offers up the right amount of excitement as attending book expos call for. “I really wanted to go.”
Johnson is key to Ana. Making her human is crucial, in the sense that she’s caught up in an absolutely absurd tale of wealth, sex, and a man who spends half the film talking about these things in terms of contracts. Christian has a surveillance file — pictures, schedules, notes made by a private investigator — on every woman he wanted to turn into a submissive; for most women, that would be deal-breaking psychotic behavior.
But Johnson is self-aware enough to laugh at the whole scenario, and that’s what the film needs to remain centered and (sometimes) watchable.
Fifty Shades Darker has a boring view of sex
Despite the source trilogy of novels being touted as some kind of BDSM grimoire for suburban housewives, Fifty Shades Darker is not really about “kinky fuckery,” as the movie calls it. Anything more than a blindfold is treated with a scene or line created to induce a pearl-clutching giggle between friends.
At one point in the film, Ana stumbles upon a nipple clamp while she and Christian are fooling around in the infamous Red Room. It’s for laughs, as Christian tightens it around her finger to show her how painful it can get. Later, there’s a sequence of events where Christian introduces Ana to Ben Wa balls and makes her “wear” them during a masquerade ball. It’s impossible to tell if Johnson is supposed to be moaning in pleasure or if she’s worried the silver balls will come jangling down her leg like loose change and clang onto the marble floor.
I will say that the Johnson-Dornan chemistry is better in Fifty Shades Darker than it was in the first film, where it felt like we were always a few minutes away from Johnson rolling her eyes. But the two never convince you there’s a connection between these two characters who are already an unlikely pair. And the dialogue they’re given doesn’t help.
If there’s one scene where this brittle chemistry works, it’s unintentionally the movie’s only truly sadistic one, in which Christian and Ana use lipstick to mark literal safe spaces on Christian’s body. She’s only allowed to touch him in certain spots. Johnson is seemingly holding back laughter while Dornan is willing himself to cry.
It’s sad, but like a lot of this movie, it’s not sad in the way it’s intended to be.
Fifty Shades Darker is the funniest movie of this young year
A lot of the film’s problems, especially the stern self-seriousness, stem from the creative changes behind the scenes. James Foley takes over directing from Sam Taylor-Johnson, and Niall Leonard, husband to E.L. James, has assumed writing duties — the latter especially is a downgrade from the first film.
After Fifty Shades Darker’s first sex scene, you begin to realize that you’re just watching two near-perfect specimens act out a fantasy that’s more about attractiveness than romance or connection. This seems to speak more to Leonard and James’s vision (the author reportedly clashed with Taylor-Johnson while making the first film).
The sooner you realize the farce — how desperately Fifty Shades Darker wants to be erotic and romantic, and how incongruent and stagnant Leonard and James’s view of erotic romance actually is — the better.
A key to unlocking enjoyment from Fifty Shades Darker is to realize that it’s actually an unintentional comedic masterpiece. After all, this is a story about a woman whose superhuman lack of intensity has somehow sparked an unquenchable interest from the world’s most beautiful and richest sadist under 30.
By far the most entertaining part of the movie belongs to Kim Basinger’s Elena, who, along with another character from Christian’s past, stirs up the story’s conflict. She holds a torch for Christian, as she seduced (but really statutorily raped) him when he was a teen and introduced him to BDSM (and, presumably, Riddick).
"You taught me how to fuck," Dornan manages to say with a straight face. "But Ana taught me how to love."
The confrontation between Elena, Ana, and Christian’s mother is supposed to be serious, a clash between first love and true love. It’s supposed to ache, and deliver a personal dilemma. But the writing drives it into what can best be summed up as unadulterated Caucasian nonsense that’s equal parts melodrama, affluence, and Dynasty.
If you mentally strip away the seriousness of Fifty Shades Darker, the movie is actually at its best in these moments. It’s as if the film briefly morphs in a shrug emoji, and the actors and director all acknowledge the fact that the poorly written books the Fifty Shades franchise is based on actually began as Twilight fanfic. And when Fifty Shades Darker lets you chuckle at its ridiculousness, it’s much more entertaining and genuine than the story it so desperately wants to sell.