50 Shades of Grey

Now that all of the concerned thinkpieces have come and gone, the angry protests have faded and the cocktail-fueled viewing parties have died down, let us ask the question: is 50 Shades of Grey a decent movie? Yes and no. It's a good movie in the sense that director Sam Taylor-Johnson has more or less made the best film that could be made from E.L. James' wildly popular source material. That source material, though... eesh.

The novel's origin story has become infamous: 50 Shades of Grey began as a piece of Twilight fan fiction, imagining Bella Swan and Edward Cullen in a series of sexually explicit scenarios. Eventually, the names of the characters were changed, the e-book became a real book and James became one of the world's best-selling authors. While it's fair to say that James' prose isn't particularly eloquent (there are more than a few popular YouTube videos of celebrities offering enthusiastic readings of some of the book's most notoriously awkward passages), the sheer magnitude of her success is nothing to sneeze at. Her storytelling is the sort of thing one usually finds in the discount bin at the drugstore, but she's carved out a place for herself on the main display shelf next to Bill O'Reilly, Dean Koontz and Dan Brown. Those guys are hacks, too, but their books don't usually involve dark sexual fantasies designed to appeal to women, so they aren't mocked quite as prominently.

The story involves a young billionaire named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, The Fall) and a hardware store employee named Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson, Black Mass). Ana has been tasked with interviewing Christian for her friend Katherine's (Eloise Mumford, The River) college newspaper, so she goes to his office and nervously asks him a few questions. She's both intrigued and intimidated by his directness and intensity... is he flirting with her, or is that just his personality? The next day, Christian shows up at Anna's workplace, declaring that he needs to buy some rope, cable ties and duct tape. “The serial killer starter kit,” Anna jokes. She's not far off the mark.

It turns out that Christian is deeply interested in Anna, but it also turns out that he's a man with some serious issues. After a brief “getting to know you” period, he reveals that he doesn't want a conventional romantic relationship with Anna. He wants her to sign a contract and agree to be his “submissive,” allowing him to control every aspect of her life, have violent sex with her whenever he wishes and physically punish her whenever she steps out of line. He insists that he wants all of this to be consensual, but who would consent to such terms? “You want me to be your sex slave!” Anna snaps. Christan winces at the term, but he doesn't deny it. Ana thinks Christian is frightening... but there's something about him she's inexplicably drawn to (the fact that he's handsome and rich probably doesn't hurt).

I'm all in favor of consenting adults doing whatever makes them happy, but what Christian is selling is more than a little creepy. This is a guy who gets off on physically hurting women, and though he claims to care about Ana and continually declares that she is free to opt out at any time, what he ultimately wants is for her to agree to a relationship where he gets to punish her whenever he wishes. That he's played as a dark fantasy figure is, in the parlance of our times, “problematic.” Still, it's not quite that simple: the film makes it clear that Christian was sexually abused during his teenage years, but he refuses to regard whatever happened to him as abuse. There's a clear line to be drawn from point A to point B, though the film never fills us in on the specifics of Christian's past.

There's a kernel of a good idea in this tormented love story, though, as the film turns the push-and-pull relationship into a tense battle between old-fashioned romance and unsentimental sexual aggression. From the start, there's a great deal of mutual sexual desire between Christian and Ana, but how much of themselves are they willing to compromise in order to fulfill that desire? For Ana, the notion of being flogged and hung from the ceiling is incredibly off-putting. For Christian, the notion of sharing a romantic evening out on the town and snuggling up in bed with someone is incredibly off-putting. In strikingly different ways, they torment and seduce each other. Yes, Christian's methods are far more objectionable (at his best, he's a possessive stalker), which disrupts the balance of the relationship considerably, but this isn't merely a bad boy sex fantasy.

The film tends to be at its strongest when it's able to convey its ideas visually rather than verbally. The dialogue can be cringe-inducingly clunky, but Taylor-Johnson's direction is consistently strong. The disconnect between the writing and the filmmaking is most noticeable during the film's “negotiation” scene: as Christian and Ana engage in an awkward discussion of sexual preferences, Taylor-Johnson cuts to a wide shot that places the two leads at opposite sides of the frame. The shot emphasizes the vast chasm between these two people, but the whole thing is showered in warm red light that also acknowledges their burning lust. The film's most elegant sequences have almost no dialogue at all: a scandalous, feverishly edited “red room” sex scene set to Beyonce's “Crazy in Love” is immediately followed by a relaxed, low-key dance scene set to Frank Sinatra's “Witchcraft.” It's a terrific distillation of the film's core thematic conflict. I hope that the preposterousness of the film's plot doesn't cause people to overlook just how good Taylor-Johnson's work is.

Also doing exceptional work in spite of everything: Dakota Johnson as the ever-conflicted Anastasia. There's a surprising element of goofiness in her performance that makes her an endearing protagonist, and she has more self-awareness than you'd expect a character like this to have. She's genuinely drawn to Christian (this is a film with a lot of lip-biting, furtive glances and heavy breathing), yes, but you also get the sense that she's constantly on the verge of bursting into laughter at the absurdity of her situation. Dornan isn't half as magnetic as Christian, but it's still a smart piece of casting. Dornan's wooden face and emotionless eyes make him a riveting psychopath on the excellent British TV series The Fall, and it's interesting to see that steely pitilessness used in this context.

The big problem with 50 Shades of Grey – its unwillingness to seriously grapple with Christian's abusive behavior aside – is its repetitiveness. Yes, the basic conflict between Christian and Ana is interesting, but not interesting enough to sustain a dozen scenes in which she offers some variation on “why can't we just be a normal couple?” and he offers some variation on “I'm incapable of normalcy!” As the film proceeds, the “will they/won't they” tension slowly begins to morph into “just make up your minds already” frustration. Even the sex scenes begin to feel monotonous after a while – some are essential, but others feel like obligatory seasoning. Adding to the frustration: the film doesn't end so much as stop, making the whole thing feel like an expensive two-hour TV pilot (sequels are on the horizon, but that's almost never a sufficient excuse for failing to give your move an ending).

This isn't the disaster you may have been dreading/hoping for, nor is it a scintillating success. The closest point of comparison I can think of is Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code, which took a fairly awful book and made it reasonably engaging. This is a solid piece of filmmaking, boasting striking visual design, inventive editing, an entertaining pop soundtrack, a sly, intelligent Danny Elfman score (dig those insinuating melodies and thrusting strings) and a strong central performance from Ms. Johnson (who I suspect will eventually earn the sort of respect that Twilight star Kristen Stewart is currently receiving). Alas, despite its best efforts, the film is unable to overcome the fundamental mediocrity of the story it's based on. Given its title, it seems appropriate that the film never manages to be particularly good or bad.

50 Shades of Grey

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Year: 2015