Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey
By Matthew Huntley
February 19, 2015

Every viewer should be so lucky.

Because E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, it stands to reason the movie version would at least be interesting. Then again, we might have thought the same thing about Twilight, and, well, I guess some books only make for appealing cinema when you’re a loyal reader of the source and therefore might be more willing to forgive the movie some of its flaws. For the rest of us, though, sitting through it can be a trying experience.

After seeing Fifty Shades of Grey, I can understand what the buzz surrounding it could have been about, which is not to say I felt any buzz while watching it. My hope was that it would be an aggressive assault on the senses and go beyond risqué, but it’s surprisingly dull and inconsequential for such a would-be sensual drama.

Perhaps the problem was my expectations were too high, or just plain wrong. After all, I have not read the novel (and after seeing the movie, I have no intention to), but my views were no doubt shaped by its popularity, not to mention the controversial nature of the material and the checkout-line gossip regarding the movie’s casting and the hype about who was going to play the “Dominant” Mr. Grey and the “Submissive” Anastasia Steele. All this prepared me what would hopefully function as entertaining trash.

But entertaining it is not, as the movie is simply not well made. The filmmakers seem all too aware of the book’s societal influence and probably assumed, either consciously or subconsciously, they wouldn’t have do much in order to sell it—that a mere shot-by-shot, straightforward adaptation of James’ pages would be enough to satiate audiences. This explains why I got no sense of adventure from director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who doesn’t lend the movie any notable style or energy. She also seems uncertain of what type of movie she was making: either solemn romance or illicit fantasy. The constant teetering between the two, and our subsequent confusion on how to take it, contributes to the movie being a bore.

So what’s it actually about? Odds are you’re already aware of the premise, which is essentially a classic fairy tale, albeit with a naughty twist. Not unlike Snow White, Cinderella or Anastasia, it follows a smart, skinny and prudish girl named, whaddya know, Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), a 21-year-old college student who meets a 27-year-old billionaire (i.e. “Prince Charming”) named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who heads his own telecommunications enterprise in Seattle. They meet when Anastasia fills in for her roommate (Eloise Mumford) and interviews Mr. Grey for their school paper because he’s this year’s commencement speaker.

At first, Anastasia asks Mr. Grey all the usual questions like, “To what do you attribute your success?” Then, out of nowhere, she asks him if he’s gay. Granted, this what her roommate had written down, but Anastasia wants to know herself because it’s obvious this guy has immediately smitten her with his designer clothes, perfect body and killer good looks. Of course, we’re supposed to assume Anastasia is still sexually pure, what with her conservative attire, humble disposition and the fact that she wears her hair up (the movie does everything except provide her nerd glasses). All this is done so we can eventually see her transform from “ugly” duckling to beautiful princess.

His answer to being a homosexual is no, but that doesn’t mean Mr. Grey isn’t keeping some facts about himself in the closet. And herein lies the naughty twist (spoiler alert!): Mr. Grey is a sadist. He doesn’t do the traditional dating thing or even sleep in the same bed with the women he sees. Instead, he presents them with a legally binding contract that stipulates he’s the Dominant and she’s the Submissive. His relationships do not revolve around things like intimate conversations, dinners, movies and holding hands, but on punishing women.

For the women, he assures them it’s strictly voluntary and says they can walk away at any time, but he also promises they’ll enjoy their shared exploits. If the woman signs the contract, he shows her his “play room,” where he keeps things like rope, cables, whips and blindfolds (Mr. Grey isn’t they type of man who skimps on quality, including accessories for sadomasochism). However, Anastasia isn’t like all the other women he’s been with—her innocence and self-respect complicate things, which of course only draws these two individuals closer together, but will their opposing backgrounds and unorthodox relationship allow their their love to be realized?

That’s the age-old fairy tale question, but the problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is it plods along at such a slow and meandering pace we start to not care about the answer too early on. Even during Anastasia and Christian’s first encounter, my mind was wandering because the actors embodying these would-be complex characters exhibited almost no enthusiasm for their juicy roles and generated little to no chemistry. I never even got the sense Johnson and Dornan were real actors, but more like two regular people reciting lines. At every stage of their relationship, they come across as unbearably stiff and not very credible. They lack essential personalities, despite what they do in the bedroom.

Funnily enough, Kelly Marcel’s screenplay doesn’t approach the material with any sense of irony or self-awareness like we might expect, so when the characters speak their often ludicrous and soap opera dialogue, the movie doesn’t intend for us to laugh at it. This would have been fine (the movie doesn’t have to be hip to itself) had the characters actually possessed any weight and dimension, but they’re so lifeless that what they say just doesn’t resonate. They’re passive not only to each other but also to what they’re doing, and that translates to us.

One of the film’s only bright spots is Marcia Gay Harden as Christian’s adopted mother. Her character was the only one I wanted to spend time with, and not because she’s necessarily interesting, but because she’s the only one that seemed real and human. By comparison, Anastasia and Christian are dull and robotic, and by the time Christian finally explains his motivations for his private life, we’re so far removed from the story that we don’t really care to know. It’s not what he does or says that’s off-putting; it’s that we simply don’t care.

Fifty Shades of Grey may have people talking before they see it, but I highly doubt it will spark many conversations afterward, not when there’s so little to it. Provocative material can only go so far unless something interesting is actually done with it, and the makers of Fifty of Shades of Grey don’t do a whole lot with what they have. I expected (and hoped) this movie would be a lot of things: sexy, romantic, fun, funny, or even sleazy. But boring? That came as an unpleasant surprise.