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‘Fifty Shades Darker’ manages to make kinky sex boring

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Fifty Shades Darker.

Two stars

Fifty Shades Darker Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden. Directed by James Foley. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.

At the end of 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey, brooding billionaire BDSM enthusiast Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and fidgety college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) had broken up, with Anastasia firmly declaring that they were romantically incompatible. Yet less than 10 minutes into sequel Fifty Shades Darker (based, like the first movie, on the popular series of erotic novels by E.L. James), Anastasia and Christian have gotten back together, with barely a shrug over their supposedly insurmountable differences. Christian still craves control over any woman he’s with and still keeps his room full of elaborate bondage equipment, and Anastasia still goes wide-eyed and giggly when presented with anything even remotely kinky. Even so, they agree to continue with a “vanilla” relationship, leaving behind the complex contractual arrangements they negotiated in the first movie.

The relative lack of conflict between the main characters is just one of the reasons that Darker ends up as possibly the most boring movie ever made about kinky sex. As before, Dornan and Johnson have terrible chemistry, and their sex scenes are awkward and clinical, lacking both the supposed passion the characters feel for each other and the alleged deviance that Christian practices. Dornan gives another flat, disengaged performance, while Johnson is again playful and mischievous, at times coming across like she’s mocking the material.

And the material deserves mockery—the script by James’ husband Niall Leonard is stilted and often laughably clumsy in the way the characters relate to each other. While Christian and Anastasia’s relationship progresses relatively smoothly, the movie’s conflicts come from outside, and all of the threats are introduced and resolved predictably and hurriedly. It’s obvious from the moment he appears onscreen that Anastasia’s new boss at a small publishing company is a sleazy sexual predator, and that she’ll rush into Christian’s arms when he threatens her (although she does at least get a semi-empowering moment of kicking the guy in the balls). Similarly, Christian’s unstable ex Leila (Bella Heathcote) and his onetime BDSM mentor Elena (Kim Basinger, bringing the camp factor) serve their purposes in the story without making much of an impact. And a late-film crisis over a helicopter crash is so absurdly rushed it might as well not have been included at all.

The flaws in the pacing and the tone can be partially attributed to new director James Foley, a journeyman whose last feature film was a decade ago. Foley’s spent his time since then working in TV, and he brings a workmanlike efficiency to the film in contrast to the more artistic vision that previous director Sam Taylor-Johnson attempted. Taylor-Johnson’s departure puts author and producer James more fully in control, and the result is a movie that embraces the book’s cheesy excesses. Christian is still sometimes creepily controlling (and not in a sexy, kinky way), but the exploration of his cartoonishly tragic back story (his birth mom was literally on crack) makes him into more of a hurt-puppy figure for Anastasia to rescue, just as he rescues her with his money and his muscles.

It’s all deeply silly, neither romantic nor transgressive enough to provide anything more than occasional mild excitement. With one more installment (next year’s Fifty Shades Freed) already in the can, Darker ends on a bland anticlimax, failing to live up to even the minimal promise of its title.

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