Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

If you follow me on Twitter, then you already know that one Friday morning way back in February I live-tweeted the act of watching Fifty Shades of Grey in a mostly empty theater.  I was accompanied by a friend, and we made our intentions of laughing and providing general commentary clear from the get-go. While Fifty Shades represented a pop cultural phenomenon too big to ignore, there was no way in hell I would be able to get through it without occasionally (rather loudly) communicating with the screen. I'd read the book in a similar attempt to see what all the fuss was about and had found it to be, well, complete shit.  Granted, I'm a little bit snobbish when it comes to literature, but I'm willing to acknowledge the merits of story even in the event of awful writing. Fifty Shades was weak on both. What I found between its covers was exactly that silly bit of Twilight fan fiction it was designed to be; an illogical, wooden slice of soft core boasting protagonists so out of touch with their supposed generation that it might as well have been set in the Narnia. A college student without a functioning computer or an email address? Is she also a unicorn?

Needless to say, I walked into the theater prepared to be enraged but willing to be begrudgingly surprised. Many a dreadful book has been made into far better film, after all, and Fifty Shades was vapid yet potentially sexy enough to benefit from an injection of celluloid glamour. It was possible - I supposed - that director Sam Taylor-Johnson could have opted to make Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) a little more with it, a little more of a women's studies major, a little more hip to what her paramour was selling.  Sadly, though, hapless "author" E.L. James retained control over the screenplay and the shells of her characters.  From the film's opening moments it became immediately clear that Fifty Shades would not be overcoming any of the inane illogic of the original novel.  So I had to accept that I'd paid money solely to play Statler and Waldorf.  To that end, in providing me with innumerable head-scratching moments, Fifty Shades did not disappoint.  If you want a movie to watch with a game group of sarcastic friends? This should do the trick. If you're looking for an "erotically charged romance"? I'd advise that you look elsewhere.

The most complete chronicle of the Fifty Shades offenses can be found by scrolling back through my Twitter profile, but I'd be remiss if I didn't collect all those thoughts into one official verdict.  So, we need to talk about a few key issues...

1. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a particularly interesting film. 
It's likely that if you weren't one of the many predisposed to seeing the film theatrically, that this was the verdict that decisively kept you from becoming as "curious" as the posters demanded. For a film revolving around a BDSM relationship, Fifty Shades is a milquetoast affair with little to offer in the way of controversy. Just as Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is all business, so is the film's engagement in its "love" story.  It's shot in a way that feels corporate chic: all sleek lines and shiny surfaces, covering contours with the flair of a luxury car commercial...but that's not the real problem.

 The real problem? The towering bore? His name is Jamie Dornan. Where Dakota Johnson actually manages to be minorly charming (however daft her character may be), Dornan's very appearance reads almost like he thinks he's playing an android or some other manufactured bit of artificial intelligence.  Ultron may be sexier than Jamie Dornan.  As Grey, Dornan has no presence, no real power, no draw, no charisma.  When he speaks he can't make the lines - however cheesy - sound like they're coming from a human. When he stands he looks uncomfortably dropped in from a catalog. When he propositions Ana? It's hard to fathom why she would ever consider accepting. Which brings us to...

2. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a particularly "sexy" film.
Though its cast is reasonably attractive and its subject matter fascinating, Fifty Shades feels like it hits about a PG-13 level of eroticism. Let's put it this way: the grilled cheese sandwich in Chef was more erotic than the dirtiest scenes of this film, and for all the fuss made about the number of minutes spent following these crazy kids in the sack, each sex scene felt shot almost as a repetition. There's little that really changes, and the rhythms of their relationship scan as a sort of paint by numbers variation on S&M that's simply uninteresting.  While, again, much of this can be chalked up to the complete lack of chemistry between Dornan and Johnson, something has gone seriously wrong when a film that advertises its pride in "going there" can't seem to understand how best to shoot and edit naked folk.

There is one scene that manages to muster a passing amount of tension between the two characters, and it's set around a conference table while Ana and Christian discuss the contractual terms of the dom/sub relationship.  For these few minutes you can see the raw potential of the story and just what Dakota Johnson could do if given the opportunity: she's doing the heavy lifting here, making you believe not only that Ana is slowly realizing that she could be into what Christian has to offer, but also slowly finding herself.  There's a recognizable moment of self-revelation in her character at this instant, and she manipulates the contract playfully, running through a menu of options that the film bypasses almost immediately.

3. Fifty Shades of Grey does not know who its core audience is, or what they actually want.
The tease of that aforementioned moment? That's what the audience wants. That's the way you shoot a romance that's also intended to be erotic. That's also the way that you shoot that type of film for women.  The fans of this book? They're women. Not only are they women, but they're probably a little older, they're probably housewives, they're probably people whose knowledge of the BDSM subculture extends no further than gag gifts from Lovers Lane and who have never heard of Secretary.  When this audience owns up to their fandom of this book, though? They don't go to the theater expecting to see shot after shot of Dakota Johnson's breasts or Dakota Johnson's butt.  They go there to see Christian Grey: dapper businessman and devilish rogue.  They go there to see the chase and the subsequent submission, but it should remain a game. They do not go to the theater to see Jamie Dornan walk around in a pair of shitty looking blue jeans while Dakota Johnson has to be naked and blindfolded. What is that?! Why is he always wearing the same old jeans!? He's a millionaire! He's perverse! Stop making him look like a raggedy farm boy! Why does he just stare? Why is he so creepy? Why doesn't he actually have a personality!? LADIES LIKE PERSONALITIES. We like our lady characters to have them, we like the men they interact with to also have them. You know what else they like? When the standard Hollywood way of filming a sex scene so that it focuses on the objectification of the woman is reversed for the appropriate audience. All that's to say, as boring as Jamie Dornan is, if there was ever a film where the dude should be automatically objectified, it's this one.

4. Fifty Shades of Grey is offensive not because it's scandalous, but because it's a truly abysmal example of romance.
Last but certainly not least: on top of being a boring, beige, generic, cynical, presumptive piece of Harlequin romance, Fifty Shades writes itself as a case study in how not to enter a relationship.  To spoil the film a little bit, what you need to know is that at the film's conclusion Ana leaves Christian because she has realized that his fetish is not confined to the bedroom, that it is a pathological condition in which he actually seems to want to hurt people: especially women.  There's a deeply unsettling turning point in the film where - though Ana very specifically does offer her consent in the act - Christian pushes beyond the lightweight limits of their previous trysts and engages in something that does not look or feel like play any longer.  She cries, clearly humiliated, clearly in pain, and after telling him quite plainly that that is not acceptable, she walks out the door.  If this is where their story truly ended, the film could stand as - perhaps - believably about one woman's sexual awakening and a coming to terms with her own limits.

Of course, this is not where their story ends. The series is a trilogy, it mirrors Twilight, and one can only presume that not only will the two get back together, but through some kind of strange magic, Ana will be the one to miraculously transform Christian Grey from the sadistically violent and emotionless victim he is into a real human boy.

I shouldn't have to tell you why that's a problem, just as I shouldn't have to tell you that it's not the BDSM that's disturbing in their relationship.  Just like his vampire double, Christian essentially stalks Ana in his efforts to woo her. He showers her in gifts, shows up where he knows she'll be, invites himself into her house. He performs acts of so-called kindness that read as aggression: trading in her beloved car for a newer, spiffier model, for example.  He seduces her with a vanilla, thrilling night of passion and then tells her she has to sign the contract, live in a guest bedroom that's been host to innumerable girls before her (decorated with a bird cage motif, no less), and essentially serve as his concubine if she wants to stay with him. But staying with him? Well, don't expect to go on any dates or be "normal" or feel loved. That stuff is for suckers.  All of this is the foundation of their "romance," which means that all of it supposes that a desperate, lovestruck woman will suffer any number of indignities to call a pretty boy millionaire her boyfriend.  It's gross, really, and assumes so little of its audience that it's ultimately kind of depressing.
Against all of that, though, I would argue that to her credit Dakota Johnson does manage to give her character slightly more psychological dimension than seems present in the script.  Though her dialogue reads one way, she's surprisingly decent at offering very small gestures that suggest Ana is not entirely comfortable with the life she finds herself falling into.  You can see her doubts and the moments of recognition that she has when she begins to suspect that she is not truly "special" or "changing" this man, but that she is a concubine.  On that level, there's something interesting that comes through in some of the movie's smaller moments. Though the performance remains relatively flat, there's just a touch of subversion, just a hint of pushing Ana's reactions so that we identify just how ludicrous Christian's promises are.  It's like she's testing her own limits, seeing how far she can go and exploring her own wants. We can almost understand whey she goes with him, just as we can almost believe that she might cut the cord.

But she doesn't. And he's no prize. And we're not given enough to prove that this isn't emotional manipulation. And his fetish is made pathological. And that shit isn't sexy. And at the end, just as you're relieved that she's running, that she's leaving, the film wants you to be heartbroken that this emotionally manipulative, near abusive relationship didn't work out.  And for that I can't really forgive this film.

My advice for the sequels? Stop listening to E.L. James. Her work was already an understood copy of a copy, now it's time to make a smarter, better fan fiction and find a way to polish those literary turds into something a little brighter.

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