Review: ‘Fifty Shades Darker,’ and Only Half as Watchable

The big tee-hee about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon is that it’s brought ostensibly scandalous heterosexual sex — with its whips and restraints — out of the shadows and into the mainstream. The likes of Madonna and the photographer Helmut Newton had primed that pump long ago, turning dominance, submission and toys into an acceptable spectacle. But it apparently took a writer as terrible as E L James, the author of the “Fifty Shades” series, to really hit the commercial sweet spot. The result is a clutch of best sellers, a hit movie (based on the first book, “Fifty Shades of Grey”) and now a sequel, “Fifty Shades Darker,” that’s almost bad enough to recommend.

Well, not quite, though it’s always instructive to watch how many different ways one movie can go wrong and to guess what happened between a first feature and a second. For all its flaws, “Fifty Shades of Grey” had a competent director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, who mostly wrung a watchable movie out of the material, partly by letting lightness and laughter in. It also had a natural star in Dakota Johnson, one of those unforced charmers who can deliver bad lines so gracefully that, after a while, you don’t much care about their quality. With low-key charisma, she drew you toward her, so that your attention and hopes fell on her instead of the nonsense surrounding her. She was a stealth weapon.

I was still rooting for Ms. Johnson in “Fifty Shades Darker,” even if it proved tough going. Once again, the story involves the on-and-off, tie-her-up, tie-her-down romance between Anastasia Steele (Ms. Johnson) and her billionaire boyfriend, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a guy with sculptured muscles, expensive playthings and dreary issues. Stuff and kink happens: A gun is fired, a would-be rapist is punished and Anastasia is bound hand and foot. Mostly, she advances and retreats (repeat), mewls and moans, and registers surprise each time Christian tries to dominate her outside the bedroom, evincing the kind of stalkerlike behavior that usually leads to restraining orders.

Given how Ms. James and Ms. Taylor-Johnson are said to have clashed over the making of the first movie, it is easy to guess who the dominant player was in “Fifty Shades Darker,” and it probably wasn’t the new director, James Foley. He’s a professional with real credits, so I assume that he’s not finally responsible for the ineptitude of “Fifty Shades Darker,” which ranges from continuity issues to unsurprisingly risible writing. There are also abrupt swings in tone, dead-end detours and flatline performances, including from Ms. Johnson. The sex is strained and certainly seems to burn serious calories (Christian flips Anastasia like a pancake), but finally pales next to the commodity fetishism. The use of Ben and Jerry’s vanilla ice cream, however, made for great product placement.

There’s not much else to say except that the all-media screening of “Fifty Shades Darker” I attended had scarcely begun before it turned into a live edition of the TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” At least some of the few hundred moviegoers seem to have arrived with modest expectations; others had seen “Fifty Shades of Grey,” so presumably knew better. Soon, though, the individual scattered titters and excited murmurings began to shift and to harmonize as skeptics and true believers alike became as one, joined by the display of so much awfulness. Afterward, we lit cigarettes and murmured about what fun we had even though we also agreed that we could never go there again.

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in “Fifty Shades Darker,” the sequel to “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Credit Doane Gregory/Universal Pictures

If you only read one Fifty Shades Darker review, make it this one

In all the kinked knots and twists of satin that adorn Fifty Shades Darker, none is more worthwhile to uncoil than the tangled absurdities of its central dominator, Christian Grey.

He's a singularly ridiculous cocktail of money, abs and sex toys. "The right term is sadist," he says in Fifty Shades Darker, the second in a planned trilogy based on EL James' best sellers. He buys companies. He flies helicopters. He's proficient with nipple clamps. He's like some kind of humorless combination of James Bond and Dirk Diggler, both debonair and dirty. More plausible figures of masculine fantasy include the Backstreet Boys and Roger Rabbit.

Fifty Shades Darker digs deeper into the demons and traumas of Mr Grey, as played by Jamie Dornan. Much of the film's entertainment is watching Dakota Johnson, as the comparatively normal Anastasia "Ana" Steele, try to act opposite a distorted dreamboat who wakes to exercise on a pommel horse and who knows all the hair dressers in Seattle.

Occasionally she implores him to stop acting so weird - but not often enough.

And then there are our glimpses into his past that make for some of the movie's most unintentionally funny moments.

In his childhood bedroom, we spy a picture of teenage Christian in front of the Taj Mahal and, most amazingly, a Chronicles of Riddick poster. It hangs in the background of a pivotal scene and the questions linger long afterward. Is the key to Christian that he's a huge Vin Diesel fan? Was it a passing fancy or was Christian " this globe-trotting sexual enigma " equally enthusiastic for subsequent installments of Riddick? Alas, we will never truly unlock the mysteries of Grey.

Fifty Shades Darker, which has maintained its lilywhite palate despite its title, takes up the action three weeks after the previous film left off. Christian, seeking to make amends after their split, comes calling for Ana, promising he's ready for a more "vanilla" relationship after the violence of his desires frightened Ana away. "I want to renegotiate terms," is how he puts it, definitely speaking like a recognizable human being.

The pair quickly gets back into the swing of things. They shower. They ride elevators. They shower again. The sex scenes are a little steamier and the sculpted bodies of Johnson and Dornan are no less up to the task. But there's a slight shift in point of view.

Director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross, At Close Range) has taken over the reins from Sam Taylor-Johnson, who clashed with James. Whereas the author wanted slavish adherence to her, ahem, prose, Taylor-Johnson had the gall to try to improve it. She partly succeeded: the ably directed Fifty Shades of Grey was better than you'd expect.

The same can't be said for Fifty Shades Darker, the kind of movie that's fun only when you're laughing at its flaccid attempts at drama. Not only was Taylor-Johnson replaced, the script this time was penned by James' husband, Niall Leonard. It plays out as a sequence of softcore stimulations with flourishes of melodrama that intrude (and are quickly dismissed) like unwelcome bedroom guests. An abusive boss (Eric Johnson) plays a foil (and a poor one at that) for the controlling Christian. A figure from the past (an underused Kim Basinger) warns Ana that her boyfriend will only be happy with total obedience.

Made bashful by the ubiquity of pornography, the movies have grown so sexless nowadays that one wants to root for the timid eroticism of Fifty Shades. But Foley has dispensed with eroticism's key ingredient, foreplay, and suffocates the conventionally shot sex scenes with music. One encounter is papered over by the most questionable of aphrodisiacs, Van Morrison.

The real dominating force here, as before, is Johnson and the fluttering fluctuations of Ana's heart. So why does "Fifty Shades of Grey" belong to Christian? The movie doesn't hang on Ana's experience; she spends most of the film playing defense to Christian's psychology. Ana, who works in publishing, speaks of being swept away by Bronte and Austen, we never see her reading a book. But she's the one who ought to be in control.

‘Fifty Shades Darker’ Review: F This Movie

Fifty Shades of Grey was a kinky sex movie that was neither kinky nor sexy, and featured an abysmal lack of chemistry between its two leads. If you thought it couldn’t get any worse, you were wrong, because we now have Fifty Shades Darker, which exacerbates the problem by trying to forge a romantic relationship between two characters who have no business being together. James Foley’s adaptation of E.L. James’ novel tries to pass off a completely toxic relationship as something healthy and profound, and instead it just makes the audience either laugh or cringe. Rather than creating a unique love story, Fifty Shades Darker seems like it hates just about everyone.

At the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) left Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) after his BDSM kink became too violent for her to handle. But Christian decides he can’t be without Anastasia, and resolves to give her the “vanilla” relationship she wants if they can be together again. She reluctantly agrees, and although Christian remains as possessive and domineering as ever, she gently pushes back against his revolting personality. Their rekindled relationship is made more difficult by the presence of Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of Christian’s former subs who is stalking Anastasia, and by Elena (Kim Basinger), the older woman who turned Christian on to kinky sex.

However, these new subplots rarely emerge or make much of a difference in Anastasia and Christian’s relationship. They feel like stuff that was in the novel, James demanded that they be included, and screenwriter Niall Leonard (who happens to be James’ husband) kind of tossed them in without any real idea on how to give them an impact. Leila pops up and then disappears for long stretches of the film. Elena was teased as a major figure in Christian’s life in the first movie, but the sequel doesn’t really seem to know what to do with her beyond a couple terse conversations with Anastasia.

But where Fifty Shades Darker really falls apart is in trying to sell us on the notion that Christian Grey should be with anybody. As bad as the first movie is (and it’s quite terrible), it doesn’t try to pass Christian off as a good dude. It puts the kink front and center so that’s it a sex movie more than a love story, and while it fails at being sexy, Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t pretend that there’s any romance between its two leads (which is good because Johnson and Dornan have zero chemistry).

By comparison, Fifty Shades Darker wants to convince us that there’s love between these two characters, and yet their personalities are out of sync. You can’t tell me that Anastasia is a strong, independent woman who makes her own choices and she’s with a guy as controlling, insecure, and domineering as Christian. Christian is a bad guy, and obviously so. He’s emotionally abusive, rude, and insecure. If your boyfriend comes with you somewhere, and introduces himself to your boss as, “I’m the boyfriend,” dump that guy. Time and again, Christian shows that he wants to possess Anastasia, and she treats it like a faux pas rather than the deep character flaw that it is.

Without any investment into the central relationship, it’s easy to focus on the myriad of flaws and curiosities that permeate the rest of the film. For example, much has been made of the fact that Christian’s childhood bedroom has a Chronicles of Riddick poster on the wall, which is surprising because even Vin Diesel probably doesn’t have a framed Chronicles of Riddick poster. But it’s one of the few things that actually humanizes Christian, and I would believe that a sulking little shit like him would have liked the 2004 film enough to have the poster on his wall.

At least this detail is charming, as opposed to one where Anastasia, working as an editor for a publishing company, has a meeting with her bosses where she exalts the work of online authors. For those who don’t know, James started out as an online author, so she basically made sure there was a scene in the movie that congratulated her on her work. Say what you will about Twilight, but at least no one in that movie says, “Boy, Mormons who write young adult fiction sure are great!” But that’s the kind of film Fifty Shades Darker is: one where the story will stop dead in its tracks so that the author can take a victory lap.

For a movie that isn’t sexy and isn’t romantic, Fifty Shades Darker fails completely at everything it tries to do. Johnson is still giving it her all, Dornan looks like he’d rather be getting his teeth drilled, and the whole enterprise is still a gigantic waste of time. Even though the series might rest on kinky sex, the Fifty Shades franchise shows that it’s surprisingly conservative in its values. Christian is in to kink because he was physically abused as a child, and really the goal for all people should be to settle down and get married. Fifty Shades isn’t about learning different lifestyles and crafting unique characters as much as it’s trying to pass off a toxic romance as an aspirational ideal.

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