Let’s be blunt, shall we? Fifty Shades of Grey is about kinky sex. There is no need to play with metaphors or innuendos here, because the mainstream curiosity around the film adaptation of E.L. James’ fan-fiction-turned-bestseller revolves entirely around how much sex is shown and exactly how kinky it gets. This isn’t pornography, after all, but a high-budget film adaptation from a major studio, so naturally people are curious as to what it can get away with.
Yet despite the raunchy source material (which was toned down significantly for the film adaptation, most critically with the removal of the book’s controversial tampon scene), Fifty Shades of Grey fundamentally fails as a narrative work of art. This supposed fantasy of a young ingenue (Dakota Johnson) being seduced by a brooding, horny billionaire (Jamie Dornan) fails to produce even a remote sense of tension, as a majority of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey’s relationship revolves around dramatic events such as her not telling him she’s going home to see her family for a weekend, or the two sitting in conference rooms negotiating the terms of their dom/sub contract. (By the film’s end, the latter apparently doesn’t even matter anymore). There is a decent amount of vanilla sex, classy bondage, and a few light whippings, but at the end of the day, one has to wonder how a film so explicit about sex could end up being so… boring.
Kink-related sexuality is often the point of ridicule in mainstream cinema, its practitioners reduced to simple, easy stereotypes (think of the “lust” victims in David Fincher’s Se7en). Even light-hearted comedies about the topic tend to paint in broad strokes (see Jason Segel’s recent flop Sex Tape), thus leaving the world of kinks and BDSM to a spat of niche-market arthouse films (such as the emotional voyeurism of Lars Von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac, the lunacy of David Cronenberg‘s Crash). Every once in awhile, a film actually nails the fun of such sexual exploration (2002’s cult-classic Secretary, which has James Spader playing his own Mr. Grey) or delves deeper into the psychology of it than anyone would think possible (the interesting-yet-serviceable 2013 documentary Kink), but these exceptions are far and few between. All of the previously mentioned films combined barely amount to a shadow of the influence of James’ Fifty Shades novels, bestsellers the world over.
Thus, the failure of Fifty Shades of Grey as a film rests on the fact that for a plot built entirely around a standard will-they-or-won’t-they conceit, so little is ultimately at stake that we, as the audience, find little reason to care about what happens to them, both in and out of the bedroom (or, in some cases, the Red Room). Grey, the hunky-but-troubled billionaire, wants the naïve Steele to become his submissive, abiding his rules as stipulated in a signed contract, while she struggles to understand why they can’t just have a “normal” relationship. And yes, a large plot point revolves around the fact that at a family dinner, Steele says that she’s heading home to Georgia to see her family, which infuriates Grey, given he wasn’t told about this (note: no contract of servitude was signed at the time). He gets upset, she leaves for Georgia, they text, he eventually follows her there which, it should be noted, is not the first time he’s shown up uninvited to various functions in Steele’s life.
Although the special features of the film reveal that a “BDSM consultant” was brought on to help add some sense of realism to the film, he failed at his job badly, as the one rule of a proper BDSM relationship is that the submissive is always in control. When their limits are being taken to an extreme, they can alert their dominant to stop and the dominant will comply. Although this specific article is brought up in the contract Grey presents to Steele, the fact that he stalks her at her work, at a club where she’s drunk, and at many other locales, depicts Grey as someone not interested in letting the submissive be in control of much of anything.
Even during the movie’s supposed emotional climax where Steele simply wants to understand Grey’s singular interests by asking him to do the worst possible thing he can do to her, he responds by whipping her posterior… six times. As with most of the film’s overlong sex montages, the point isn’t so much as in developing the characters as much as it is titillating the audience, and a majority of the film’s kinkier sequences could easily have no less than two minutes shaved off of them to little discernible consequence. Some of these scenes lumber along at such a poor pace that one feels like Tommy Wiseau had more restraint during his sex scenes in his own terrible cult-classic, The Room.
The performances all around are little more than acceptable, with Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Grey’s mother, seeming like the only person who truly is having fun on set. Although the film does make a few stiff attempts at jokes, its relentlessly self-serious air prevents anyone outside of diehard original fans from finding anything emotionally resonant during the film’s already-generous two-hour running time.
The Blu-ray edition of the film tries its best to delve further into the “world” of Fifty Shades of Grey by offering actor and character profiles, miniature featurettes about E.L. James and the film’s history, and even provides a behind-the-scenes look for the music video the Weeknd made for the hit soundtrack. Much of the material is of the standard self-congratulatory type, everyone happy they were able to pull the darn thing off, although the sheer level of detail provided is sometimes wholly unnecessary. A two minute character profile on José (Victor Rasuk), who appears in the film for all of four minutes? It’s hard to imagine too many diehards clamouring for that feature.
There is one minor bit of unintentional hilarity in the special features: the “360° tour” of Grey’s apartment features various nodes a user can click on to bring up different sets of on-set photos; the one for Grey’s personal bedroom has a single node, and when you look for “more” to explore, it doesn’t take you to another view with other nodes so much as just slowly spin 360 degrees and take you back to the same single node you started with, making for a glorious exercise in pointlessness.
Despite all of this, however, bear in mind that Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t owe anything to anyone. Dominatrixes and those in the kink industry may laugh at how inaccurate the film portrays its naughtier elements, but that’s not where the film’s responsibility ultimately lies. At the end of the day, all Fifty Shades of Grey has to do is entertain and engage the audience in some notable way, but even with that low standard, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t so much a bad film as it is a bland one, capable of taking a concept of such unspeakable intrigue and reducing it down to a watery love story that feels bereft of consequence or even the faintest hints of unique insight.
Christian Grey refers to his playroom as “the Red Room of Pain”. If he really wanted to inflict torture on people, he’d show them Fifty Shades of Grey.