“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
That’s how Mark Twain introduced “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Add “Persons attempting to find unerotic sex will be successful,” and that’s my review of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
It is, to quote the one of the most tedious male characters in recent history, “Fifty shades of f----- up.”
Writer Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson adapted E.L. James’ novel as a twin fantasy. Men get intelligent, funny, compliant virgin Anastasia Steele (a porn-star name if ever I heard one). Women get Christian Grey, a billionaire in his 20s with chiseled abs, a private helicopter and an open wallet.
His name, you see, represents the emotional drabness of his life. He can’t give or get love; he signs contracts with women in which they agree to become “submissives” in his secret room of pain/pleasure, where he can dominate them. In return, they live a high life and, presumably, explore the pleasure of having someone else make every decision. Anastasia demurs, which turns him on.
Yet is that a pleasure? Doesn’t the word “stalker” apply to someone who sells your car without telling you and replaces it with one he thinks more suitable? But stalkers have passion, however misguided. Grey can’t get it up emotionally. The filmmakers underline this by making him drive five gray cars, wear gray suits, dress employees in gray and work in a gray building full of gray furniture.
Dakota Johnson wrestles with her character, showing a few shades of frustration and confusion at Grey’s unwillingness to connect with Anastasia on a non-sexual plane. Jamie Dornan wears the same tight smirk in almost every scene as Grey, letting a bit of angst dribble out once in a while.
We’re constantly told in life that women long for humor, tenderness and honesty, yet that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Anastasia has those things but, failing to find them in Grey, hangs around for sex that’s ritualistic, joyless, faux-naughty (no genitalia) and coy, all arched backs and curled toes. Occasionally, she receives a spanking that wouldn’t trouble Winnie-the-Pooh. (Perhaps things will get seamier in the two sequels that have already been greenlit.)
Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden sully their resumés as clueless mothers. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey makes Seattle look like the gloomiest city in North America. (It’s always ... gray.) And Danny Elfman has written the kind of score you used to hear in soft-core Cinemax movies broadcast after midnight 30 years ago. How sadly apt that is.