Since its publication four years ago, the “Fifty Shades of Grey” books have sold over 100 million copies despite novelist E.L. James’ abysmal dialogue and perfunctory sex scenes — a sales figure that suggests the trilogy is certainly doing something right.
Here’s my guess: Like the “Twilight” franchise before it (which inspired the original version of James’ tale), “Fifty Shades” taps into the narcissistic but understandable fantasy of having some innate quality that makes the audience-surrogate character the romantic and sexual obsession of a man who just happens to be handsome, intelligent, wealthy, and generous. After years of being told they aren’t “good enough” — girls and women are constantly pressured to be prettier, cooler, nicer, to Smile! — a man finally comes along and proclaims that everything that she already is is so fantastically desirable that she’s all he can think about.
Oh, and he wants to worship her for being so awesome by giving her lots and lots of orgasms.
That “Fifty Shades” is a mega-blockbuster, then, is no surprise. The stylish and mostly satisfying film adaptation by director Sam Taylor-Johnson (“Nowhere Boy”) will be too, and deservedly so. Starring a vivacious Dakota Johnson and a game Jamie Dornan, Taylor-Johnson’s erotic romance is a skillful distillation of James’ first book that captures the heady exhilaration of being someone’s fixation.
Enjoying a belated coming-of-age is college grad Anastasia Steele (Johnson), a mousy but charming naïf who meets aloof billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan) through an interview for her school newspaper. She trips into his office and looks up at his standing figure on her hands and knees. (Subtle, the film is not.)
Instantly smitten, Christian pursues her until she ends up in his bed — but only because she drank too much the night before. Over hangover-eliminating toast the next morning, Christian makes his intentions clear: he wants to become her Dominant, but not her boyfriend, and he’d like her to sign a contract that will dictate the parameters of their sexual play.
Once Ana and Christian get together, there’s not much more to the story: it’s mostly PWP, or “porn without plot,” as it’s called in fan-fiction jargon. (The softcore scenes are tasteful but decidedly sensual.) And yet screenwriter Kelly Marcel smartly contrasts Ana’s erotic submission in Christian’s gorgeous sex dungeon with her ongoing resistance to actually signing the contract, a move that leaves open the possibility for her to negotiate a more open and emotionally vulnerable relationship with her new bedroom partner than what he initially imagined.
That negotiation is literalized in the film’s best scene, in which a newly confident Ana sits in Christian’s conference room to discuss the terms of their contract, finally proving that she’s no longer willing to take it lying down anymore, pun intended. (The film’s Ana — funny, smart, always quick with a quip — is a vast improvement from the self-hater in James’ book.)
There’s also a grown-up drama hinted at in the script, under-explored here but perhaps to be elaborated on in the two sequels that have already been greenlit, about a couple that cares for each other but are forced to confront their sexual incompatibility, since the further Ana concedes to Christian’s sexual wonts, the less satisfied she becomes.
Despite the condescending snark and ridicule the books and the movie has received for supposedly introducing S&M to soccer moms, “Fifty Shades” is certainly not the sexually progressive story it could be. Christian’s sexually dominant tendencies are related to his mysterious but tragic past, the implication being that only damaged weirdos are into BDSM. That correlation is not only demeaning but also represents one of the film’s most tonally discordant and melodramatic moments.
Unfortunately, the obscure details of Christian’s past serve as a bridge to the next two movies, which are set up through an abrupt cliffhanger that ultimately renders this film simply a hastily wrapped-up prelude to whatever comes next.
“Fifty Shades” doesn’t exactly leave me panting for more, but it certainly knows how to keep a girl happy during its running time.