There’s a real temptation to cut the “Fifty Shades” films some slack; after all, almost every month sees the release of another superhero movie, designed to fulfill the power fantasies of boys of all ages.
Even if the ongoing saga of Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson) is nothing but wish fulfillment, why should adult female audiences be deprived a vicarious shot at career advancement, gorgeous lingerie and a billionaire underwear model who’s fond of what the young hero of “20th Century Women” would refer to as “direct clitoral stimulation”?
However, if you think that those same audiences also deserve characters with any depth and plotting that relies upon the presence of multi-dimensional human beings, “Fifty Shades Darker” falls short. It’s nice that the two photogenic leads are treating sex like a pleasurable activity rather than an onerous chore in this second entry, but overall, the film plays like an un-asked-for collaboration between the Hallmark and Playboy Channels.
After peering into the sadistic heart of her boyfriend Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and walking out on him at the end of the previous movie, Anastasia sets off on her own, starting a new job at a Seattle publishing house as the assistant of fiction chief Jack (Eric Johnson, “The Knick”). At a gallery show for her photographer pal Jose (Victor Rasuk) – fantasy alert, there are a bunch of huge portraits of Anastasia, and she looks gorgeous in all of them, except OMG, you guys, she’s so shy! – she runs into Christian again. He’s just bought all her portraits, and he’d like to have dinner.
So creepily crisp in the first movie, Christian has let his stubble grow in to show how lost he is without Anastasia. She quickly takes him back under a “no rules, no punishments” understanding, and despite the provocative title, their couplings play out as being much more fun this time. Anastasia has coerced him to the vanilla side, but she’s not beyond asking for the occasional spanking or a trip to the red room when it’s something she wants to do.
Everything’s so generally cozy between the two, in fact, that “Fifty Shades Darker” has to keep finding its drama from without, rather than within, their relationship. Whether it’s Jack getting handsy or the appearance of Elena (Kim Basinger) – the older woman who taught a young Christian the ropes, as it were – or the threat of one of Christian’s old subs (Bella Heathcote), who’s now stalking Anastasia, our young lovers run a gauntlet of threats in between masked balls and dinners out and naughty elevator rides.
TV scribe Niall Leonard makes his film debut as a screenwriter, adapting the terrible prose of novelist E.L. James, to whom, by sheer coincidence, he happens to be married. There’s none of the occasional glimpses of self-aware humor that Kelly Marcel offered in the previous installment, just banalities, bromides and blank stares.
If you’ve seen Dakota Johnson in anything else (“Date and Switch,” “How to Be Single,” even her hosting stint on “Saturday Night Live”), you know she has a spark that these movies completely suppress; as for Dornan, the character’s relative state of relaxation has rubbed off on the actor, but he’s still stuck playing an underwritten stiff.
Director James Foley and his team give the target audience what it allegedly wants: gleaming surfaces, nudity at a distance, and the tidiest kink imaginable. What Foley doesn’t do is imbue this fluff with the grit that you might expect from the director of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” But hey, coffee is for closers, and part threes – “Fifty Shades Freed,” directed by Foley, opens next year – are for people who keep their heads down and do what the bosses want. In Hollywood, that’s the real tale of submission.