FIFTY SHADES OF GREY Review: Grey is the Dullest Color
Late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said of pornography, that while he couldn’t necessarily define it, “… I know it when I see it.” The same can be said for good onscreen chemistry.
(You thought I was zigging. I zagged.)
Good chemistry – a kind of magic, really – between actors and actresses have made okay films good and good films great. Wonderful onscreen pairings have included the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy; Rock Hudson and Doris Day; Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks; and Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
Good chemistry cannot be predicted nor can it be quantified, but when it happens, you know it.
The onscreen couple in Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t have that kind of chemistry, and that’s only the start of the film’s problems.
Based on the wildly successful novel by E.L. James, the film stars Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele, an English Lit major in her senior year who offers to conduct an interview on behalf of her Journalism major roommate (Eloise Mumford), who is sick. The interview subject is Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a titan of Seattle industry who has yet to turn 30. The interview is awkward as Ana has no journalism experience and Christian’s office environment is intimidating. Still, Grey finds himself interested in the slightly younger coed.
He sweeps her off her feet with persistence, impressive use of money, and a desire to be her caretaker. But that desire to take care quickly devolves into a desire to take control, and Ana slowly becomes an uneasy but still willing participant in Christian’s sexual desires – desires built on a foundation of BDSM. As his control in the bedroom grows, it also grows outside the bedroom, something Ana isn’t necessarily prepared for.
A film like Fifty Shades of Grey, with such explicit sexual themes and presentation, will live or die with the chemistry between its stars. If there is no spark when they are in an office or at a coffee shop, then moving them into the bedroom only changes the scenery, and not even the kinkiest of props will disguise that they just don’t work well together. In the case of Dornan and Johnson, they have the chemistry of two people on a bad blind date – a bad blind date that lasts for weeks and includes everything from dancing to Sinatra to taking a belt across the … well, you know. There isn’t a moment in the film when the couple displays any sense of anything more than sharing scenes and reciting lines.
As for those lines, this film has some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard. There are moments – many, really – when a pause takes place and a glance is given before a wildly contrived sentence is uttered. You can almost hear James (or screenwriter Kelly Marcel) pumping a fist in glee after writing down quotes like:
“Enlighten me, then.”
“It’s you that’s changing me.”
“You’re here because I’m incapable of leaving you alone.”
Each line is a little worse than the last, and compiled they sound like a Saturday Night Live parody of an ’80s nighttime soap.
The characters (and their actors) are no better. Anastasia’s inexperienced college senior is played by Johnson not with naïveté or even youthful trepidation, but with the awkwardness of a high school sophomore (and the insufferable fickleness of that age, too). Christian is worse. He is presented to be some great businessman, but instead he looks and acts like a magnate’s son who’s been left in charge for the day. He doesn’t come across as a leader, but rather a manager, yet he never smiles so he must be a tough businessman. No other characters even matter, from Christian’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to his office staff, a collection of impossibly gorgeous females who look like the Robert Palmer video girls if the Robert Palmer video girls decided to pack up the band and go to Wharton.
All that remains is the sex. Is it kinky? Most of the time, yes. Is it graphic? It’s R-rated graphic. Is it hot? Not particularly – not only because of the lack of chemistry and awful dialogue, but because of the way it’s approached. Because Ana is uneducated in this lifestyle (and one other reason I won’t spoil), spontaneity takes a back seat to education. Christian often sounds like he’s reading from the text book of a BDSM 101 class. It isn’t sterile, but it certainly isn’t exciting, either. Not helping matters is Sam Taylor-Johnson‘s heavy-handed direction, which strips the sex scenes of all eroticism in the clear pursuit of making sure not too much is shown.
At its darkest moments, the film makes an effort to delve into why Christian is into this lifestyle of dominance and submission, this yearning for pleasure combined with, and brought on by, pain. Again the writing fails, glossing over what could have given the character – and the film – some sense of depth.
The only bright spots are a few humorous moments where Johnson shows a flair for comedic timing. The scene where she drunk-dials Christian will last longest in the memory.
A lack chemistry, and poor writing and directing, hamper a lot of films. Ultimately, what ruins Fifty Shades of Grey is how it belies its own edgy reputation by playing it safe. It doesn’t go dark enough with Christian’s sexual addiction for fear of alienating the suburban soccer moms who made it acceptable to talk about bondage at bunco night, nor does it go sexually far enough for fear of turning its R-rating into an NC-17, a financial kiss of death.
Grey might be a color associated with steely control, but it’s also associated with being dull, and fifty shades of that isn’t worth two hours of your time.