There is a scene early on in Fifty Shades Darker in which Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) are grocery shopping. Ana pulls out a pint of Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream (tight shot of that logo because this movie won’t pay for itself) and makes a “cute” remark about how the frozen treat shares a flavor with their newly non-BDSM relationship. This moment is unintentionally the thesis statement of the film that is to come, one which tantalizes you with the promise of kinky sex but is really more interested in getting back to the cozy heteronormative status quo. The marketing will say that the Fifty Shades franchise is Rocky Road, filled with a variety of tasty chunks, but it’s really just plain vanilla.
Ana has a new job as the assistant to Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), the alphadog head of a powerful publishing company. She is allegedly very good at her job, the film tells us, but such evidence is left to our imagination considering Ana spends most of her time at work texting. She has also gotten over the abrupt end to her relationship with Christian, which soured at the end of the previous film when his brand of punishment-sex was too strong for her. This schism was meant to be devastating, but it’s nothing that a five-minute conversation over dinner with Mr. Moneybags can’t fix. So the lovers are back together again, under the condition that they take things slower.
Ana confuses things by increasingly demanding that Christian introduce more of his beloved tools of the trade, while Christian struggles to repress his traumatizing upbringing and to let Ana in emotionally. Complicating matters further are the ghosts of Christian’s past, including the woman who deflowered him (Kim Basinger) – now his business partner – and a former sub of his (Bella Heathcote) who can’t let him go. Also, Jack has his eye on Ana for more than keeping his schedule together.
There is a single good thing about this dumb movie, and that is the fact that Ana spends a few scenes with a pair of metal stimulus-balls packed into her vagina. Not that director James Foley (tagging in for the previous installment’s Sam Taylor-Johnson) films the ingress of said balls in a particularly enticing manner, but it’s hilarious to watch Johnson put on a performance of sexual pleasure when the reality is that she would probably be super uncomfortable, especially since she is crammed into a slinky dress at the masquerade the marketing is so keen on showing us. I was reminded of the brilliantly subversive Hysterical Literature series, which has ten times more to say about female sexuality than this snooze does.
Everything else in Fifty Shades Darker is by turns ludicrous, lazy, or flat-out boring. The sex scenes, of which there are a handful, are so soft-core as to be runny, all boobs and butts but no genitalia. My theory always was that if we were going to have film versions of the E.J. James erotica novels that they might as well be hardcore porn-adjacent, NC-17 affairs that actually give the people what they want. Seeing as the novels have their origins as Twilight fan-fiction, it then follows that the results are incredibly tame and terrified of real sex, focusing on a protagonist whose blank-slate personality is ripe for audience projection (Foley’s direction to Johnson must have been, “Great. Now do it again, but more breathy”.) Christian’s extreme wealth serves the same function as the Force in the Star Wars films, in that it is an all-purpose plot-hole filler and incident-creator. How does Ana solve the problem of her boss getting too handsy? Christian buys the company and fires the jerk. Also, every time Ana finds herself alone and vulnerable, it’s because Christian has been pulled away to handle “business”.
Because Fifty Shades Darker is Hollywood’s idea of straight female wish-fulfillment, Ana Mary Sues her way into her dream job with little to show for it, fixes her man’s pesky idiosyncrasies, and gets to experience a life of limitless luxury. There is also the tricky issue of the fact that if Christian were not obscenely rich, Ana would have almost no reason to be attracted to the guy. Strip away the money and Dornan’s gym body – to which Foley democratically allocates as much screen real estate as Ana’s – and all you have is a damaged, controlling man who refuses to allow Ana to have her own life. Many red flags of an abusive relationship are present: constant texting, refusal to allow Ana to make her own decisions, and steam-rolling Ana into accepting money she doesn’t want. The problem is that the film ultimately endorses Christian’s domineering behavior because he turns out to be right most of the time. Setting aside the film’s tut-tutting of the completely legitimate BDSM lifestyle, this movie has no interest in interrogating the problematic relationship at its center. We’re expected to swoon over how romantic it all is, a tall order when the characters are this vapid.
There is also Niall Leonard’s charmless screenplay, which was apparently too thin to fill the two-hour runtime, because Foley includes two pointless montages that last for several minutes each. The characters both drone generically about how much they want each other, apparently evinced by the increasingly silly (not sexy) locations in which the pair bang it out. All other dialogue is pure exposition, revealing nothing about how the characters relate to one another and failing to deepen their relationship – tough luck, because number three is coming next year! Fifty Shades Darker also features laughably on-the-nose song choices to underline the characters’ feelings, with the puerile sex scenes scored with dopey rock that cools any potential heat in the audience’s loins. Also, Coldplay is allowed to be in films only when Richard Linklater uses their music. Otherwise, they’re in movie jail.
Fifty Shades Darker is a dull misfire on nearly every level. The imagery the film cribs from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is merely a bait-and-switch: that masquerade goes nowhere, unlike in Kubrick’s film, in which it leads to crazy orgies. In fact, if you want to see a movie with nutty, fascinating ideas about eroticism that smacks of real danger, go watch that film. It may leave you emotionally drained, but it’s better than feeling dead inside.
Romance | Universal Pictures