‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Is 49 Too Many

Fifty Shades of Grey tells us that if you want to punish the masochist in your life, buy a lot of color-coordinated whips and handcuffs.

Lemme suggest something cheaper; get your sweetie a ticket to Fifty Shades of Grey.

Here’s a film which, miraculously, makes bondage about as erotic as a P.T.A. meeting. Of course, it might just be a subtle recruitment tool created to bring people into the BDSM community (that’s bondage & discipline/sadomasochism, for you novitiates in the audience). If so, it worked on me; after 125 minutes of interminable boredom I was thinking longingly of flaying a few people myself.

And the target at the top of my list would be British “writer” E. L. James. A few years back she churned out the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, the first of her Fifty Shades trilogy, which has the distinction of being one of the worst-reviewed and best-selling novels in publishing. (And that, dear children, is why democracy can never work.)

It’s about a dreary college student living a dreary life in the dreary Pacific Northwest. She meets a moody, broody billionaire and the next thing you know, they go nuts for each other. But as Shakespeare once wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” It’s revealed that the fella is into bondage. And that’s a problem, because from the looks of it, this girl doesn’t have the discipline to buy a hair brush let alone be spanked with one.

But Christian Grey ( the brooder) can’t get over Anastasia Steele (our victim, er, heroine) and the two begin a tortured (in more ways than one) courtship, which James dragged out to an unbelievable three volumes of more than 500 pages each.

None of which I’ve read. But everyone I know who did told me how much they hated them, as they were standing in line to purchase the next one.

So it isn’t surprising that Hollywood came a-knocking. After some initial trouble lining up directors, writers, and actors, the final product features Sam Taylor-Johnson directing a screenplay by Kelly Marcel with Dakota Johnson as Ana and Jamie Dornan as Christian. Amazingly they got a three-picture deal to film all the books. Me? I’d have given them 20 to life.

Dispassionate Passion and Dull Dickering over Dreadful Details

How, I started wondering 30 minutes in, can something that’s supposed to be all about red-hot passion feel so lifeless? Certainly the source material gets some of the blame, but this movie only compounds the problem.

The movie's posters are in black and white, yet they are more colorful than the movie itself.

The movie’s black-and-white posters turn out to be more colorful than the movie itself.

The tone of Taylor-Johnson’s directing is a relentless studied cool which tips into permafrost, and to call the performances one-note is an insult to triangle players everywhere.

I have to confess I’m not into the whole bondage scene. (At my age? Please, I’d herniate a disc.) So I’m not sure if what’s on screen is a true representation of that world. But apparently it’s all about negotiation. Once Christian shows his instruments and accoutrements to Ana (and she doesn’t immediately recommend a therapist) the bulk of the film becomes an elaborate series of questions as to how far Ana is willing to go. Christian even draws up a contract outlining what she will or won’t do which, if she wants to keep him, she’ll need to sign. And even though they’re staring at each other with smoldering eyes through the whole haggling process, it’s about as sensuous as watching a realtor close on a house.

I admit I never thought I’d hear someone say in a Hollywood film “no vaginal fisting,” which Ana says to Christian. Yet in the next breath she asks, “What’s a butt plug?” She knows what vaginal fisting is but not what a butt plug does? Ana, honey, it does what it says on the tin.

They go on and on dickering over what’s to be done, in such a drawn-out manner for such a long time that I ached to yell: “Just get in the damn bed, have sex and then turn on Fallon like everyone else already.”

Christian does give her a few previews of what’s in store should she decide to submit and sign the contract. These bits … well, I’m loathe to call them actual sex scenes, since they’re so mannered and choreographed and rigidly precise that they make the installation of a cardinal seem like a hoedown. Really, I think we landed in Normandy with less pre-planning.

Behind the Boredom and Bondage, a Bad Idea

As it turns out, however, Fifty Shades of Grey really isn’t about BDSM; it’s an old-fashioned love story. The book series actually began life as Twilight fan fiction, and even without knowing that going in you couldn’t miss it. In a Northwest setting, a sullen young woman adrift in the world meets a handsome brooding stranger who wants to take care of her. She loves him like crazy and though he loves her back he can’t express it because of a dark secret in the center of his life. (And certainly both owe a big debt to Jane Eyre.)

It’s a stupid plot but in Twilight it’s forgivable because, well, because the handsome brooder is a vampire and obviously the whole thing is fake. But in Fifty Shades you come to realize that the story is built around a repugnant, if not actually dangerous, theme.

You see, we’re supposed to be rooting for Ana and Chris to get together. If only she loves him enough she can fix him!

But Chris is less a fixer-upper than he is a burn-it-to-the-ground-spread-it-with-quicklime-and-move-to-a-new-neighborhood prospect. I’m probably the last person in the world to give dating advice but I do know one thing. If a man tells you up front that his idea of a successful relationship is one in which he hurts the woman …  well,  Ana, honey, it does what it says on the tin.

I suppose that episodes of sexualized displays of power (which is what he wants) can be one aspect of a healthy, monogamous marriage (which is what she wants) but Fifty Shades hardly makes that seem likely. The movie instead just reinforces the tired cliche that love is the price men have to pay for sex and sex is the price women pay for love.

Ultimately Fifty Shades congeals into a distasteful clump, and you understand why the director and screenwriter have spent so much time with all the negotiation nonsense and drawn-out foreplay—the hero of this film is a man who enjoys beating women. Taylor-Johnson and Marcel have employed every trick in the cinematic book to delay and avoid showing the actual act, but it’s the core event of their story, and if you’ve been unfortunate to stay awake for two hours you suddenly find yourself a complicit voyeur in Ana’s degradation.

The woman I feel the most pity for, however, is not Dakota Johnson but her real-life grandmother, Tippi Hedren. First the poor woman gets attacked by seagulls and now this.

How can there possibly be a God?

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.