Boredom isn’t particularly titillating. If a simple imperative exists for both fucking and filmmaking, it can summarily be expressed as, “Don’t be boring.” This principle applies doubly so to making films about fucking. A great force of stupid, communal will is required to disempower the most seductive storytelling medium when its subject is literally seduction. Past films of the ilk, like Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful, offer a logical template to follow: the film’s seduction of its audience should mirror the seduction of the main character by the seducer. How to structure the story isn’t an issue; its structure is written into our genetic code. There’s the first jolt of excitement, the slow build to plateau, orgasm and resolution, roll end credits. Boredom shouldn’t be a factor in these films because interest is generated as a matter of course. Will they, or won’t they? From Pride & Prejudice to Twilight, the trope has fueled more stories than anyone has life hours to list. For the makers of Fifty Shades of Grey, the buttons were already there for the pushing. The only question was how hard they were willing to push.
Not that hard at all, apparently. For a film about a psychologically damaged billionaire who draws a virgin into his netherworld of sexual deviancy, Fifty Shades of Grey is frustratingly tame, a peck on the cheek offered in lieu of an anal fisting. Our star-crossed dullards are Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, insensate mogul and naive bibliophile respectively. Christian is as morosely dull as both parts of his name suggest, and Ana is utterly in thrall to his stupendous dullness. After Ana clumsily, charmlessly interviews him for her college magazine, Christian embarks on his courtship of her with all the subtlety and allure of an autistic date rapist. Unpack her receptiveness to his disconcerting advances as you will. Christian drives Ana one place in his Audi, flies her somewhere else in his helicopter, repeatedly extends his hand to her and creepily whispers the word “come.” Again and again, she takes his hand. Anyone with a functioning human brain is left to wonder why.
Eventually, Christian introduces Ana to his “playroom,” where he subjects women to all manner of cruel and unusual punishment, like putting ice cubes in their bellybuttons. Gasp! There is, of course, a catch. Before Ana can be granted access to the ultimate pleasure of providing Christian with pleasure, she must sign a contract detailing the parameters of the dominant-submissive arrangement (safe words, oral etiquette, etc.). The scene that follows, in which Ana playfully negotiates the contract with Christian, making her stance on vaginal fisting clear, is the film’s best. On very rare occasions like these, Fifty Shades lapses accidentally into a B-movie campiness that would have made it a tenfold better film. Cracks of humanity appear in the frozen lake of the performances, and it’s uncomfortably effective considering the vacuous source material. At the very least, lines like “What’s a butt plug?” serve as a reprieve from the sterile monotony. A smarter version of this movie would have functioned as a kind of playroom, an imaginative space into which the audience enters skeptically, stays gleefully, and flees from with equal parts fear and satisfaction. Instead, Fifty Shades of Grey is a bland slog, a hapless collection of needlessly dour scenes that, like paint swaths, differ in slight degrees of uninspiring grayness.
What conscious adult in possession of genitalia is turned on by this tedious bait-and-switch? To date, over one hundred million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey have been sold, and the Puritan population isn’t large enough to explain why that is. Signs of serious studio edge sanding are apparent throughout the film version, but still, Fifty Shades of Grey shouldn’t be a flash of pubic hair away from a PG-13 rating. The inoffensiveness seems antithetical to the series’s animating ethos, its marriage of mass cultural entertainment and subcultural perversion. The worst punishment Mr. Grey exacts on Ana, by far, is his company, his affectless monosyllables and mannequin mannerisms. A cat o’ nine tails is an untold pleasure in comparison. By the time Christian halfheartedly horsewhips Ana to her breaking point, it’s apathy–not abuse–that has numbed the audience into a state of unfeeling. The setup for a sequel that follows is too cheap to acknowledge and too dreadful to consider. Please, Mr. Grey, no more. Haven’t we not suffered enough?
Final Strawberry Verdict: 2.5 Strawberries out of 5