'50 Shades of Grey'

The whip comes down in this adaptation of E. L. James' mega-seller.
'50 Shades of Grey'

Let's be clear: 50 Lashes With a Wet Noodle is positively unrapey; director Sam Taylor-Johnson emphasizes the matter that Christian Grey has the consent of the soon to be trussed and flogged Bella Swan, I mean Anastasia Steele. Having rinsed out the ambiguities, Taylor-Johnson has watered the product. 50 Shades of Grey seems to be under the influence of Kurt Vonnegut's "ethical birth control pills": the ones that prevent contraception by making you numb below the waist.

Ana certainly gets what she's coming for, but the movie emphasizes her reluctance to submit totally to the man who wants to tie her up and hurt her, all in the name of mutual pleasure.

Dakota Johnson's Ana is the bright side of a dull movie. She's dressed down at the beginning in everything but pigtails and a giant lollypop. She's a college grad who is about as mature as a high school senior, a Hardy-loving virgin who never thought about what people get up to. The film's biggest intentional laugh is Grey staring at her naiveté and asking her where she's been all her life.

Ana is awakened by her (literally) helicoptering lover, so she gets a makeover. It increases her brattiness and tease, so the audience won't mind seeing her get made to do stuff. She's a lean girl without much to spank; Johnson's main asset is a plush, wry mouth that ought to have a three picture deal of its own.

50 Shades of Grey's auteur is really E. L. James, who insisted on the trappings of this film, the gunmetal-colored clothing and the neckties. She has an Ayn Randian appreciation of thrust of skyscrapers and of Triumph Over Her Will[stet] aerial shots. These include a glider ride in Georgia that makes you yearn for the autumnal flying scenes in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999). It's good the movie gets off the ground via the runway; the Northwestern landscapes are as soggy as the dialogue.

I've rarely felt such pity for an actor as I did for Jamie Dornan—his task proves the old saying that you can put the stuff on paper, but it's impossible to say it. We live in an era of exposure, and it's hard for a young actor of today to act secretive unless it's to suddenly reveal that he's a caped superhero or a vampire.

And Dornan has sabotaged himself via the interview tour. As Gawker noted, he's repeatedly brought up his personal domestic bliss, the wife and baby back home. If you've been cast as the plutocrat sadist whose antics sold 150 million copies, you might as well show up at junkets dressed in black, staring a hole into the cameras, perhaps repeating the questions asked by reporters in a toneless sneer, as if everyone with a microphone was begging for a piece of what you gave Anastasia Steele.

Dornan's pursey, covert smile can't animate this empty-suit of a character. "My tastes are very singular... you wouldn't understand." (It recalls Pee Wee Herman: "There are things about me you wouldn't understand. Things about me you couldn't understand!")  Dornan's Grey is mom-pecked and nerdy, and, like Pee Wee, a bit ducky—you know there's been some doubt about Dornan in the role by the number of times we cut to women exclaiming over how hot he is. (50 Shades of Grey has a target audience of women, but isn't Bechdel rule approved—there's nothing else for women to talk about but Christian Grey.

We're reassured that he's wholesome: he takes care of Ana when she vomits all over herself, and there's some line about how Grey feeds starving Africans ("It's good business.") At dinner, his family talks like the movie WASPs of the 1950s, and yet Grey supposedly clawed his way up from the slums.

He's another sadist made, not born. His mother is played by Marcia Gay Harden, who certainly looks like she knows her way around a dungeon. Grey reveals his inner goodness in symbolism that goes back to the 1930s. He tinkles on a grand piano by himself at night, when Ana is in another room, trying to sleep off yet another pummeling. The art direction seems thinly-budgeted: the cargo-cult part of the sexual fantasy gets stinted. And there's no serious visual imagination. Ana's room has a little mural on silver paper of a bird in a gilded cage with the door open. The master's chamber is strictly overpriced business-class hotel décor, complete with the too shiny floors and the usual mess of orchids. His grand piano, silhouetted against windows overlooking the Seattle skyline, makes him look like Billy Joel on an album cover.

 I didn't witness outbreaks of masturbation among the fans, so I'll speak for myself: the "inner goddess" satisfaction didn't do much for my outer god. I observed with some interest the relatively everyday stuff a couple would do to try to spice things, with blindfolds, ice cubes and tied-up hands. The various whips and chains there for threat, mostly. The hard-R rating gets pushed with the kind self-conscious thrusting endemic in simulated sex.  Christian leaves Ana quite half-spanked in one scene—if you want to see how this kind of scene works when it works, than you shouldn't have walked out of Inherent Vice. The more serious attempt to wipe the smile off Ana's butt with a leather belt precipitates the cliffhanger, leading us into the next episode of these spank-operas.

It's said that the object of 50 Shades is romance, not sex. Yet the language of 50 Shades is actually of the financial deal and the job interview, replete with the kind of counter-intuitive sloganeering we hear in advertisements: "if you become my slave, I will be devoted to you." It's the sweet-talk that disguises the corporate yearning to put its fist up your ass. So much of what Christian Grey says is what money would say if it could talk.

The transgressiveness eludes me, as does the empowerment of becoming a rich jerk's toy, a kept woman. I'm not trying to slut-shame the millions of readers, who could point out that male movie fantasies are just as unreal and violent... still, here's to 007. When pervy millionaires tie him up and torture him, he kills them. But how fictional is this? There are certainly enough punitive grey Christians with scads of money running the USA in 2015, and we're all taking a good whipping from them.

50 Shades of Grey

R; 125 Min.

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