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Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: 50 Shades of Grey

Okay, let's get this out of the way: Plenty of very good movies have been made from very bad books. While 50 Shades of Grey was a truly awful book, the source material in any good adaptation should be a guideline, a suggestion, to be moved and modified to make the best movie possible. This does that, at least a bit, improving on E.L. James' book in a number of ways. And, you know what, there's plenty to appreciate about a genuine blockbuster film being made that takes a woman's discovery of her sexual pleasure and limits seriously and non-judgmentally.

And here's the thing; as a romantic comedy, 50 Shades of Grey actually kind of works at first. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Kelly Marcel ditch the book's awful first person perspective, blessedly ignoring the petty narrator and her childlike 'inner goddess', and they tone down Christian's most abusive tendencies (though unfortunately they can't get rid of all of them; some are plot important) or tragic backstory. With all that baggage gone and a lot of extraneous characters cut off, the movie manages, briefly at least, to find something to say.

The plot remains the same: Virginal college senior Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) lucks into a helluva resume-packer when her overachieving roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) gets too sick to interview hot young tech billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the student newspaper. Ana and Christian hit it off immediately and quickly begin seeing one another, but Ana quickly realizes how deep his controlling tendencies are. As the relationship turns serious, he introduces her to BDSM - to his 'Red Room of Pain' and to a contract that suggests each person's limits, safewords, and more. Ana enters into the relationship with Christian, but finds it tumultuous at best as the pair struggles to ignore their physical passion while seeking an emotional middle-ground.

If the movie works at all, it works because of Dakota Johnson. Johnson led Fox's excellent, unfairly-canceled sitcom Ben and Kate, and she brings every bit of her formidable comic chops and reluctant vulnerability to bear here. In the book, Anastasia was vapid, vain, and mean-spirited when she had a character at all; Johnson gives her a backbone and a sense of humor that wasn't present before, finding a sweet sense of playfulness that helps balance the movie's best bits. There's only so much she can do when paired with Jamie Dornan, however. Dornan is stiff as a board here, going for 'controlled' and ending up somewhere in the zone of 'sleepy/hungry'. In A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac played a deeply controlling character, a trait he portrayed with every too-long pause, with a tightness in his bearing, with every glance; in 50 Shades of Grey, the best Dornan can manage is deepening his voice. There is absolutely no chemistry here.

Unfortunately, Sam Taylor-Johnson and 'original' novel writer E.L. James clashed frequently. It's not surprising; James' novel is incredibly retrograde in its sexual politics and offensive in its view of kink, while Taylor-Johnson refocuses Anastasia's sexual coming-of-age in a more positive light. The improvements Taylor-Johnson made fix sizable portions of the book; the improvements she was not allowed to make ultimately render a lot of it moot. And unfortunately, her direction is otherwise largely uninspired. The sex is tepid, shots of Johnson and Dornan's chests and asses fading softly up to their faces contorted with joy; the post-Skinemax standard, really. Rarely has kinky sex been so dull. The movie is chilly and distancing, playing up the Twilight aesthetic but with none of the campy energy Catherine Hardwicke gave that first film. And scenes with Anastasia's coworkers, family, and classmates seem to amount to little more than weird remnants of the story's time as Twilight fanfic, characters who add nothing to the story but time.

For the first 40 minutes or so, 50 Shades of Grey is actually quite enjoyable, but it can't maintain that spark. The source material just... doesn't have enough going on in its back half to really fill a two hour runtime, and Taylor-Johnson doesn't add (or cut) enough to make it work. A relentless charm offensive from Dakota Johnson damn near saves them all, though there's only so much she can do to make it work when Taylor-Johnson has to fight for every vital change she makes - and loses half the battles. Ultimately, as much as Dakota Johnson tries, there's only so much one woman can save. Here's to hoping she'll go on to have a wonderful career, at least.

50 Shades of Grey is out now in theaters across the nation, including Atlanta's Midtown Art Cinema. Written by Kelly Marcel adapting the novel by E.L. James, 50 Shades of Grey stars Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, and Eloise Mumford.
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