Fifty Shades of Grey (Focus Features/Universal Pictures, R)

50 shades_75_copyFifty Shades of Grey is fine if you want to keep up with what everyone will surely be talking about for the next week, but then surely stop talking about forever after that.

 

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There’s that old saying that pornographic films aren’t “adult” movies, they’re “adolescent” movies, and that the people in them don’t “make love” so much as “make hate.” Both of these insights apply to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.

With that in mind, everyone in the world is positive that the film Fifty Shades is going to suck—film snobs, regular filmgoers, men, women, whatever—and yet it seems like most people also want to see it. In this regard, Taylor-Johnson excels. She recognizes that people are going to be coming into this thing expecting to laugh at its ludicrousness, expecting to groan, etc., and she lets them have it, but knowingly; during the film’s many sex scenes it often appears that she’s actively courting laughter from the audience—never quite to the extent to make the film’s overheated tone completely break, but enough to show you that it’s in on the joke.

That isn’t to say that Fifty Shades of Grey is a good movie—it isn’t—but it is better than what everyone is acting like they want it to be, and smarter than I expect many people to recognize.

In a film based on a novel by a woman (E.L. James), directed by a woman (Taylor-Johnson), adapted for the screen by a woman (Kelly Marcel), and starring a woman (Dakota Johnson—no relation to Sam, though Dakota is the daughter of Melanie Griffith and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren), a lot of tropes of the average Hollywood movie are inverted. For example, the world Johnson’s Anastasia Steele lives in only seems to contain cute boys—her classmates (she’s about to graduate from college), her coworkers (she works in a hardware store), her platonic friends, the random guy she has to interview as a favor to her roommate. That random guy is of course Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a 27-year old billionaire bachelor who’s not-so-secretly into S&M and was originally written with Ryan Gosling in mind, though he seems to have a healthy helping of Don Draper in him as well.

As one might expect, there is a high level of ridiculousness to the supposed averageness of Johnson’s Anastasia; she’s supposed to be an “everygirl”, but if you look at male leads in romantic Hollywood movies who spend their lives in a world populated only by attractive, available females, they tend to look like Jason Segel, where Johnson is basically Hollywood royalty. Her being dowdy at the beginning of the film reads similarly to Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That or Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada.

On some level this film possesses what could be a perfect formula—a film that many would deem a “chick flick” (a term I despise), but with copious female nudity. Never too hard to talk one or the other gender into coming to something like that. But therein lies a question—if, as stated above, this is a film with women in most of the key seats behind the scenes, why is there so much female nudity, and so little male nudity? That old Hollywood double standard is very much in play here, where by the end of the movie you will have spent a large percentage of the past two hours looking at Johnson’s naked body, but only offered a fleeting glance at Dornan’s butt and a handful of near-misses of the rarer bits.

I spent most of the film wondering why there are three Fifty Shades of Grey books—what about this story needs to be told spread out over a trilogy? While I have not read the books, the movie certainly doesn’t make a case for the second and third parts needing to exist, nor for that matter does it make a case for itself needing to exist. But it could be worse; I honestly found much more enjoyment in Fifty Shades than I did from another film made from a Kelly Marcel script, 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks.

Finally, Fifty Shades of Grey is fine if you want to keep up with what everyone will surely be talking about for the next week, but then surely stop talking about forever after that. If you’d prefer a more serious and meaningful look at an S&M relationship, give Kirby Dick’s 1997 documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist a try (but don’t expect it to be rated R; that one’s for real). Or, if you’d prefer a fiction film with a similarly female-led cast and crew, a good place to go is the Dutch film Hemel, directed by Sacha Polak in 2012, which only deals with sadomasochism in passing, but all the same has a whole lot more to say about it than Fifty Shades of Grey does. | Pete Timmermann

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