Friday, February 13, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: Colorless

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for strong sexual content, profanity and considerable nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.13.15

While it’s certainly true that this film is better than the atrociously written book on which it’s based, that’s damning with very faint praise.

Because this film still is a stinker.

Hunky gazillionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) makes Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) an
offer she absolutely should refuse: to become his "submissive" during a brief "relationship"
that he promises won't include love. Hey, it's every girl's dream, right?
Dakota Johnson is reasonably persuasive as Anastasia Steele, the naïve, freshly minted college graduate who enters a web of sexual sin with a blend of curiosity, wariness and endearing, flirty innocence. Kelly Marcel’s screenplay also makes Ana smarter and spunkier than the dim-bulb imbecile of E.L. James’ so-called novel, who constantly talked and behaved as if she were 21 going on 12.

But Jamie Dornan is a total joke as billionaire, super-stud businessman Christian Grey. Dornan couldn’t act his way out of a snowball in hell; he actually makes Keanu Reeves look talented. Dornan is as uncomfortable in this role as his Grey is in his impeccably tailored clothes: stiff, awkward and wholly unconvincing.

Dornan’s line readings are the stuff of acting workshop nightmares ... although, in fairness, I’m not sure anybody could breathe credible life into this wooden dialogue.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has precisely two tricks up her sleeve, and she uses both to wretched excess: constant tight-tight-tight close-ups on her two stars, and instructions that they deliver every word with breathy, clipped, arched-eyebrow hesitation. Both affectations are the stuff of turgid afternoon TV soap operas, a level to which this film constantly sinks.

An over-reliance on tight close-ups minimizes a story’s sense of time and place; it’s also boring. Most significantly, it denotes a director who doesn’t trust her cast, the theory being that (for example) it’s easier for Dornan to emote if cinematographer Seamus McGarvey moves his camera close enough for us to count the pores on Christian Grey’s cheeks.

That’s the trouble with theories: Not all of them turn out to be true.

Taylor-Johnson has only one previous feature film to her credit: Nowhere Boy, 2009’s thoughtful biography of John Lennon’s early years. It’s leagues better than this dull, turgid, over-hyped and under-delivering mess.

One has to work pretty hard to make naughty, onscreen sex boring. Taylor-Johnson works that hard. The coupling and supposedly risqué sado-masochistic trappings don’t engage on any level, in great part because Johnson and Dornan share zero chemistry. We’re apparently supposed to be impressed by the mere fact that this story exposes a spicier level of sex play than conventional American movies: the same “hook” that apparently turned James’ book into such a best-seller.

Didn’t work there; doesn’t work here.

I can’t fault Dornan; she has a cute body, which she gamely bares at the drop of a necktie. She’s obviously comfortable in her own skin, but Taylor-Johnson stages all the sex scenes in a way that makes them cold, dull and unappealing: nowhere near the heights of erotic ardor that Christian constantly promises his “Miss Steele.”

It reaches a point where we dread each fresh occasion where Ana gets peeled out of her clothes: not because of any concern over what Christian is about to do to her, but solely because we know that we’re in for more lingering, slow pans over Johnson’s naked body.

Playboy photo shoots deliver still pictures with more sensuality than this entire film can muster.

The plot, such as it is:

We meet Ana on the cusp of her graduation from Washington State University, Vancouver, as an English literature major. When roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) catches a cold and cannot make an interview scheduled in her capacity as a writer for the college newspaper, Ana steps in and thus embarrasses herself during a silly Q&A with Christian Grey, apparently the world’s most eligible bachelor.

He’s also an incredibly successful investment consultant/analyst/whatever. We know this, because Dornan creases his brow and “talks tough” during important business calls. (Cue the first of many, many audience snickers during Wednesday evening’s preview screening.)

Sparks ignite. She’s drawn to him, a moth to a candle. He’s intrigued by her guilelessness, but nonetheless warns that “I’m not the man for you.” She ignores this; so does he. (Giving her some expensive Thomas Hardy first editions does rather muddle his intentions.)

They circle each other; her eyebrows raise at his control-freak tendencies. He takes her to his Seattle home — in his private helicopter, natch — and even shares the contents of his locked “red room of pain.”

She eyes the racks of whips, collars, belts and other instruments of sexual torture, and doesn’t bat an eye. (What a gal!) He offers her a contract to become the 16th in his long line of female sex toys. They spar, meanwhile becoming friends with benefits.

She begins to acquiesce, tolerating a few of the “soft limits” of his peculiar forms of sexual pleasure. We immediately lose all respect for her.

And so it goes ... and goes ... and goes. Up to a finale that the book’s readers know is coming, but is guaranteed to infuriate anybody unwise enough to walk into this film cold.

Marcel — whose only previous credit is co-scripting 2013’s disappointing Saving Mr. Banks — did a few smart things, while adapting James’ execrable book. Marcel very wisely abandoned all of Ana’s relentless internal conversations with her “inner goddess,” a phrase I grew to loathe. (Yes, I read the verdammt book. Every one of its gawdforsaken 514 pages. Nearly killed me.)

Marcel also jettisoned Ana’s wide-eyed glorification of everything Christian shares with her: Whether a meal, a glass of wine or a piece of music, the book’s Ana is left awestruck, proclaiming it “the best she’s ever tasted/drunk/heard.” The film’s Ana isn’t such an unworldly, blathering boob.

Additionally, and perhaps most wisely, Marcel minimizes Christian’s arrogant, control-freak tendencies, which are beyond unsettling in James’ book.

On the other hand, this script also abandons all of the supporting characters who gave the book at least some dimension. Aside from Kate, all the others — Ana’s mother and step-father, Christian’s brother, sister, mother and father — are granted no more than eye-blink cameos.

I particularly miss Taylor, Christian’s driver and sorta-kinda guardian, who is the book’s one genuinely interesting character. He’s played here by the capable Max Martini, but given very little to do.

Marcel also gives us only scant examples of the book’s one truly charming gimmick: the snarky e-mail conversations that flow between Ana and Christian ... which are far more engaging than anything they say or do when actually in each other’s presence. The film grants us a few of these exchanges, but not nearly enough.

What does that leave us with? Endless slow, protracted scenes of Ana and Christian, Ana and Christian, Ana and Christian ... testing each other’s boundaries and desires, ad infinitum. A total yawn.

Which, finally, brings me to the most bewildering element of this book’s success, which Taylor-Johnson’s film faithfully reproduces: the moment when Ana demeans herself and obediently becomes the “submissive” to Christian’s “dominant,” and kneels on the floor with her back to him, naked except for some scanty panties.

And I was forced to wonder anew, as I did while reading the book: All the progress we’ve made in this country, with the grindingly slow march toward gender equality, and the American woman’s best-selling novel of choice turns its female protagonist into the equivalent of a compliant, concubine slave to an Islamic fanatic? Seriously?

Alternatively, all the heightened awareness we’ve been granted — during the past decade in particular — about the perils of unbalanced men who become fixated stalkers, and we’re supposed to applaud when this story’s Ana submits to just such a person? Like, it’s acceptable because he’s a) hunky; and b) rich? Again, seriously?

OK, I get it: James — whose actual name is Erika Leonard (hence the “E.L.”) — has simply tapped into the tried-and-true romance novel genre, layering it with some explicit sex. And there’s no shortage of stories involving otherwise smart women who become determined to “fix” damaged male lovers.

But a narrative must be credible to win our emotional interest, and it also must be constructed with at least a modicum of polish. James’ clumsy prose reads like a 12-year-old girl’s diary, except that (one hopes) most adolescent girls wouldn’t be this salacious. No surprise, then, that James’ only previous literary experience is the equally overblown Internet fan-fiction that she wrote under the pen name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon.”

Apparently, Fifty Shades of Grey emerged from what began as a slice of Twilight fan fiction. That seems reasonable: We can sense the insufferably contrived Bella/Edward vibe in this story’s equally laughable Ana/Christian “relationship.”

We’ve seen, time and again, that a good film can’t be made from a bad script. It therefore should come as no surprise that a good film also can’t be made from an atrociously bad book.

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