Fifty Shades of Grey Dakota Johnson, Kamie Dornan, Luke Grimes. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Rated R. Opens Friday.
So chilly and inert that a shrewder way to generate heat might have been to set the entire film on fire, the hotly anticipated Fifty Shades of Grey exists in a tepid middle ground apt to disappoint hardcore fans of E.L. James’ bestselling novel and newbies expecting something scandalously sexy. Stripped of its most X-rated elements, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation proves a creaky, old-fashioned fairy tale masquerading as soft porn, one in which dominatrix-style carnality is talked about more than actually performed, and in which the real fantasy peddled is that of a pure young woman softening the heart of a distant, wounded hunk through true love. In other words—pay for the erotica, stay (if you must) for the squishiness.
As in James’ novel, Fifty Shades recounts the whirlwind adventure of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who, on the eve of securing her college degree in English lit, interviews her school’s celebrity alum, aloof billionaire playboy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). During this initial encounter, drab and reticent Anastasia bites her lip to express nervous excitement, wooden Christian grips the edge of his desk like he’s trying to squeeze juice out of an orange, and the two stare at each other with so little fiery chemistry, the ensuing sight of Anastasia sticking a “Grey”-imprinted pencil in her mouth comes off as the height of phallic-symbolism comedy.
Soon enough, Christian is stalking Anastasia, whose reciprocal interest is heightened by the fact that he’s a man of Power and Wealth. Her feelings are complicated, however, by his domineering arrogance—and also by his admission that he doesn’t “do” love, only impersonal, S&M-style craziness in his secret Red Room. This stuns Anastasia, as does the nondisclosure agreement he makes her sign, and the contract he gives her that lays out the various ground rules for their forthcoming libidinous mayhem. If that sounds like an overly formal arrangement for violent, boundary-pushing dominant-submissive sex, it’s in keeping with director Taylor-Johnson’s treatment of their eventual spanking-and-riding-crop trysts, which are shot in languorous takes that drip with faux-sensual momentousness, and in breathless slow-motion montages that eschew explicit nudity or behavior in favor of hands being gently tied with rope and blindfolded faces alighting with excitement.
That Taylor-Johnson stages Fifty Shades of Grey’s selling-point sequences like clinical rituals certainly drains the action of any forceful, uncontrollable passion, though responsibility for that failing can also be laid at the bound feet of its leads, who never seem physically or emotionally in sync, and who too often come off like robotic mannequins going through second-rate Skinemax motions. Worse still, Kelly Marcel’s leaden script is all tease and no payoff, wasting countless time suggesting outrageous carnal fireworks to come, and then merely sprinkling a bit of limp salaciousness over a dim-witted faux-empowerment story that casts Christian as a man who, for all of his intimidating suits and porn-playroom pastimes, is just a tormented child in need of some stern rebukes from a forceful mommy figure. Feigning freakiness in service of simplistic pop psychology, it’s a film that feels not only neutered below the belt, but also lobotomized above the shoulders.