I’ve listened to authors and book critics rip into E.L. James’ bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey with such passion, it very nearly borders on the sadistic. I have no doubt that film critics, and perhaps some audiences, will do the same thing to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film adaptation, and with equal passion. For my part, I haven’t read the novel, but I did watch the film with keen awareness of the conventions and expectations of a genre as intentionally one-tracked as erotica. My conclusion is that it’s a mixed bag; when it’s on track, it achieves exactly what it set out to achieve, whereas when it veers off course, it becomes ridiculous, implausible, and surprisingly boring.
I’m typically the first to demand a movie that delivers in the ways of plot, character development, and theme. In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, however, it’s at its most successful when little attention is paid to any of those aspects, when it focuses strictly on the sex – not just the steamy intercourse but also the foreplay, including piercing eye glances, blush-inducing passages of frank dialogue, and tantalizing closeups of body parts reacting excitedly. Every sex scene, full of nudity, is accompanied by pop songs that were either exclusively written or specifically remixed to feature soft percussion, as if to suggest a steady, throbbing lust. I suspect the filmmakers carefully studied a few selections of softcore pornography. For research, of course.
The sex scenes, and there are several of them, feature Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a young billionaire entrepreneur, and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a college student studying English literature. Not only did I immediately pick up on the ways in which they’re narratively forced into sharing the same space, I openly embraced them as genre clichés; of course Anastasia’s roommate and best friend would come down with the flu and not be able to interview Grey for the college newspaper, and of course Anastasia would be sent in her place, and of course there’s instant animal magnetism between her and Grey. Of course Anastasia would be intimidated by Grey’s attractiveness, his need to control, his command of any given situation, and of course their first sex scene would be about the loss of Anastasia’s virginity.
Grey, we very quickly learn, regards romance as a dirty word; a dominant into bondage and pain, with all manner of whips and restraints neatly organized in what he calls his “play room,” he wants a loveless sexual relationship with Anastasia, in which she must contractually agree to be submissive to him exclusively. In any other movie, the idea of such a contract would be laughably ludicrous. Since we know this movie is erotica, the contract allows for fleeting moments in which Anastasia cleverly pushes her own sadomasochistic agenda, manipulating Grey to the extent that the roles of dominant and submissive are beautifully reversed. She must know that her hesitating to sign on the dotted line wouldn’t keep him from resisting her.
It’s in the very attempts at adding depth and complexity to the characters that the film loses its way. In a movie like this, where sex is the only thing audiences want, there’s no need for backstories or psychological insights; we don’t have to know that Grey, an adoptee, was born to a drug-addicted mother, and we sure as hell don’t have to know that he was introduced to the world of sadomasochism at the age of fifteen by an unseen woman he now considers his “friend.” That gets into statutory rape and molestation, neither of which are sexy. And when Anastasia goes beyond the mousy-to-masterful erotica archetype, when she begins to long for a real romantic relationship with Grey and becomes tearful at the prospect that such a thing may not be possible, pleasant distractions subside and we suddenly become aware of all of the story’s many, many implausibilities.
These glaring imperfections are intertwined with unnecessary subplots, one involving the cordial but distant relationship between Grey and his adoptive mother (Marcia Gay Harden), the other involving the relationship between Anastasia and her mother (Jennifer Ehle). For a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s no room for humanity. At heart, it’s erotica, and like its more extreme cousin pornography, erotica is a fantasy world that shouldn’t have to be anything more than what it is. There are times when it isn’t, and those are ones that work. When it is – or, to be more precise, when it tries to be – it falls flat on its face. By the end, it has transitioned into a drama, and we practically have to scrape it off the pavement.