“Fifty Shades of Grey” is a literary phenomenon that has come to the big screen. This happens all the time, although the subject matter usually has more to do with boy wizards and teenage vampires as opposed to whips and chains.
S&M romance is not your typical Hollywood fare and while the results as a work of cinema are pretty mediocre, it represents a whole lot more as a cultural touchstone.
For those of you who have never met a woman with a Kindle, “Fifty Shades of Grey” explores what is actually some pretty well-worn territory, as the proprietor of any used book store can attest.
Young and innocent college student Anastasia Steele (played gamely by Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith’s daughter Dakota Johnson) crosses paths with young and handsome telecommunications billionaire Christian Grey (Irish actor Jamie Dornan) and a smoldering romance begins.
The twist on this Cinderella tale is beyond the helicopters and penthouse apartments, Prince Charming is into some pretty kinky stuff.
There are some interesting ideas floating around in this movie about relationship boundaries, female exploitation and empowerment, and sexual gender roles. Of course, most of that is between the lines. The majority of the proceedings are cold, plodding, and rigid.
Director Sam (short for Samantha) Taylor-Johnson actually does a commendable job along with screenwriter Kelly Marcel for finding some degree of nuance and depth in the notoriously clunky and two-dimensional prose of author E. L. James (who can certainly look to her millions and millions of dollars to soften the blow of any literary criticism).
I guess what I found to be so surprising is how a movie about weird, erotic, passionate sex could wind up being so dull. The bedroom and “playroom” scenes are expectedly tamer compared to what readers were subjected to (this is after all an R-rated movie as opposed to an NC-17 one), but the courtship and relationship drama between Anastasia and Christian is surprisingly flaccid.
This is not to say “Fifty Shades of Grey” doesn’t show signs of life. The contract-negotiation scene between Anastasia and Christian was well executed and the ending would have been brilliant if it weren’t instead a cliffhanger for the inevitable sequel (this is, of course, a literary trilogy).
Countless think pieces have been written about why “Fifty Shades” struck such a particular nerve with American women and I expect countless more will appear when the box office receipts begin to roll in.
These books and this movie do say something profound about female sexuality in the 21st century, the problem is nobody can agree on exactly what that is.
The answer is likely complicated and multi-faceted, much like women in general, but the best theory I have heard so far comes from my wife (and I’m not just saying that because she is beautiful and brilliant and agreed to marry me).
She thinks a lot of it has to do with timing, in that the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon was reaching a crescendo at the peak of the Great Recession. At a time when money worries were putting stress and strain on a lot of relationships, American women were offered a titillating fantasy and escape, along with a shot of empowerment and the assurance there were stranger problems bouncing around out in the world than those of their own.
Whatever it was, this movie is an echo of that experience and while it is easy to dismiss as a film, it shouldn’t for one second be taken lightly.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and language.