I can believe reports that Fifty Shades of Grey was a slavish adaptation of the book, because most of its problems involve a narrative that could have been repaired with a more flexible adaptation. Despite those problems, the film is not without its pleasures, particularly if you get to experience it in a theater full of snickering women.
You've heard the story. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) interviews Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her college paper and he pursues her in his mysterious ways. He's actually into bondage and he's a dom, so he wants Ana to be his sub. Grey introduces Ana to the lifestyle and she flirts with danger, struggling to decide if he's worth subjecting herself to whips and flogs. Or that is what she'd be doing if this were an informed portrayal of the bondage lifestyle.
I feel I know more about the bondage lifestyle than Fifty Shades of Grey, which is a problem when the material purports to be about said preference. I mean, we all know what safe words are for. There are men and women who are perfectly happy living as doms and subs, but those are people who have enough experience in the lifestyle to know which roles make them comfortable. You don't recruit a novice to be a hardcore sub.
Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele, Focus Features
It seems like author E.L. James is making a rather harsh judgment on that lifestyle if she thinks it's a tool for abusers to find victims. There may be some people who practice bondage and S&M to exorcise some sort of demons, but that would not be indicative of the community as a whole. In Christian Grey's case, it's the result of multiple experiences of abuse, so James is saying she thinks bondage is a deviant coping mechanism. On behalf of anyone who chooses the lifestyle for healthy reasons, that offends me.
Asking Ana to sign a contract establishing the limits of their submissive relationship is actually the most responsible thing Grey and the movie does. Unfortunately that means the bulk of the film is taken up by contract discussions. While there is one humorous scene involving the contract, it only serves as a reminder that it's irresponsible to expect such a novice to even be able to give informed consent on such a subject matter. The contract should've been foreplay but it just reminds us, "Oh, this is really not right for her. She should move on."
It's hard to get too riled up in defense of a sexual practice when the best they can do for dirty talk sounds like "wear the panties your mother laid out for you." You almost start to get wrapped up in the drama of exploring a taboo relationship when Grey will say something ridiculous to jolt you back into reality. The banter abandons any pretense of innuendo and talks specifically about taking her clothes off.
Dornan and Johnson share their first on-screen kiss, Focus Features
The actors deliver the lines exactly as they are meant to be spoken. That is the problem. A good adaptation could make this banter flow and crackle. Instead they commit to Johnson stammering her lines and refusing to speak at an audible volume, and Dornan has to say "Laters, baby" twice. Twice! I guess as a 27 year-old billionaire, Grey would not have outgrown the `90s lingo of his youth. He'd never have to.
So enjoy some ridiculous banter in an uninformed exploration of a subject that's not even that taboo anymore. Most movies could do more research and add some authentic details, but again they were required to stick to the book. The film is lit really well. The piano scene in silhouette is really pretty. Danny Elfman does his best `90s erotic thriller score with sultry remixes of popular songs contributing to the soundtrack. It's rare to see something this oddly misguided in such a normal-seeming package.