The 400-Word Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

By Sean Collier

February 16, 2015

It's either this or have to watch the movie. She chose wisely.

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Is it erotica? Is it drama? Unfortunately for the poor moviegoers who will see Fifty Shades of Grey, it doesn’t have the juice to succeed as either.

In the adaptation of the bajillion-selling book series, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is granted an interview with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a babyfaced billionaire with a steely exterior meant to come off as mysterious. The two experience (alleged) chemistry, and neither can stop focusing on the other as they go about their widely divergent lives. After a few days of Grey stalking Steele across two countries, however, they begin negotiating a relationship — and then the reveals commence.

Grey has no interest in or barometer for romance, and doesn’t engage in traditional relationships. What he is into is a variety of BDSM sex; he has kept a series of women (15 before Steele) as in-house, consenting sex slaves. He’d like Steele to be his latest submissive; she, however, is a virgin who’s never been in a relationship.

By the way, your first physical relationship should probably not be in a mysterious billionaire’s sex dungeon. Just as an aside.

The narrative drive, such as it is, is about the nature of their relationship — will Steele submit to Grey’s kinks? Will she sway him to a particularly spicy, yet traditional, relationship? Or is there no hope for this odd couple?

Of course, no one cares. Fifty Shades of Grey, in both its literary and cinematic forms, is about sex. Here, that means a half-dozen or so scenes best described as tame, softcore pornography; they are undoubtedly erotic and unquestionably the focal point of the film, but they are not even explicit enough to warrant an NC-17 rating.

Unfortunately, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (adapting E.L. James’ novel) didn’t have the gumption to take Fifty Shades for the work of erotica it should be, saddling it with an over-reaching focus on plot even in the absence of a clear structure. The filmmakers seem to regard their work as a drama, rather than a sex film; its weak story can’t support itself as such, however.


The photography is good, and Johnson does a respectable job carrying the film. But the thin-at-best substance of Fifty Shades is sunk permanently by the creepy-to-abusive behavior Grey exhibits — and that’s before the whips even come out. As a film, it’s bad; as an influence, it’s worse.

My Rating: 3/10

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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