Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

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Christian Grey is a man of specific tastes.  When he crosses paths with the young Anastasia Steele they begin a relationship to find the outer limit of their desires.  But will Anastasia crumble in the wake of Christian's wants, or find a way to redeem the tortured man?  Sam Taylor-Johnson directs 50 Shades of Grey from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel, and stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan.

He will see you nowFifty Shades of Grey is another adaptation of a semi-controversial series of novels which were originally Twilight fan-fiction. I say semi-controversial because the acts of pleasure described within the pages are nothing to get too worked up other (in either a frisky or angering sense). Plus the detractors tend to be the types of people who decide what entertainment is or isn’t healthy for the people consuming it without actually consuming it themselves. With the Twilight connection established I was set to give Fifty Shades of Grey a fair shake since I enjoyed the Twilight adaptations a lot even if the novels were abysmal.

My open mind did me a lot of good in the first hour or so of Fifty Shades of Grey. The broad outlines of the story feature two pathetic people who have risen to power because that’s what we expect in dramas in and around the corporate world. In fact, director Sam Taylor-Johnson has a lot of fun playing with audience expectations when it comes to the drama.

The first hour works so well because it skewers the basic plot and character interactions by playing them only so serious. There’s a certain amount of self-awareness brought to moments like when Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) goes to interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and mutters “Wow” at all the big buildings. Somehow this college-age city-dwelling lass is still blown over by the height of these structures. She’s so easily impressed it’s amusing, and her easy threshold for pleasure is an important factor in her relationship with Christian.

50 Shades of Grey looks great, even if the final results are middling.

50 Shades of Grey looks great, even if the results are middling.

Their relationship, just so I’m clear, is absolutely hilarious. Anastasia’s wide-eyed infatuation with the secretive Christian takes on a pathetically funny charm when we see she spends her nights partying while Christian stays at home with a barely consumed glass of wine and his laptop. The strength of Anastasia’s lust is even more hilarious when we start taking the sex scenes into consideration. Her loins are set on fire with some extremely mild bondage and a man who doesn’t seem to be capable of producing an interesting thought.

What could have been outright pathetic is so entertaining because of Taylor-Johnson’s direction and the lead performances. There are a lot of funny shots which show how painfully mundane their relationship is, most notably in a sequence of close-ups over a bondage contract while Anastasia and Christian describe the potential acts with the same emotional flair I buy bottled water with. The sets are spare and decoration minimal, which further throws the abnormal extent of their passion into question as Christian doesn’t even have anything interesting around him.

Johnson and Dornan are perfect in their roles because they don’t play to the same level of self-awareness which Taylor-Johnson’s direction does. It’s the sort of scenario where the empty monoliths and sad displays of power speak for themselves, having Johnson and Dornan punch down further would have been too much. Instead their absolute sincerity feeds further into this deconstruction of rigid male symbols of power, be it through Johnson’s coy, “I just wonder if your heart might be a bit bigger than you’re willing to let on”, to Dornan’s enthusiasm when saying he won’t sleep with her, “Not until I have your written consent.” A particular high mark of Dornan's ridiculous performance is when he takes a zesty bite of Johnson's toast as an example of what he would like to do.  It makes the dryness of the contract and sex scenes much funnier, because it proves the old axiom that the experience you desire most is also the one which is least satisfying when you experience it.

I love all the subtle jabs Taylor-Johnson takes at Anastasia's infatuation with the limp Christian.

I love all the subtle jabs Taylor-Johnson takes at Anastasia's infatuation with Christian's surprisingly tiny prowess.

But eventually the hour ends, and from this point to the rest of the film it becomes a dull setup for the future sequels. The setup is the same laughable stuff as earlier in the film, with a slightly harder spanking turning Anastasia away from Christian, but is played so deadly serious the fun goes out of the room. There’s some dramatic potential to be mined here as this is a clear violation of trust between two people who are supposedly exploring their limits. But with the stakes so low, and the tone suddenly much darker, it becomes difficult to keep up interest as the stretch marks show on the plot while Taylor-Johnson dutifully sets up the next film.

It doesn’t help that the development and focus of Fifty Shades of Grey is more on Christian than Anastasia. Twilight at least kept the focus on Bella’s desires and how empowered she was in her relationship with Edward. The meek Anastasia is literally a plot tool for Christian’s advancement, which makes the use of BDSM questionable at best. Those acts are supposed to be a mark of trust between two responsible people, not a painful dramatic crutch to help the man overcome specters of his past.

This is not the fault of anyone in front of or behind the camera. Taylor-Johnson and the crew of Fifty Shades of Grey made the best possible film they could out of the sources material. In a way, my disappointment is heightened because I wonder what they could have done with the same resources to make a farcical erotic drama all on their own. But as recent superhero films have taught me, blockbusters aren’t usually for artistic wishes but for setting up the next blockbuster. Fifty Shades of Grey accomplishes this, but it could have been so much more.

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Tail - 50 Shades of GreyFifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.
Screenplay written by Kelly Marcel.
Starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Anastasia = Dakota Johnson. You got it right in the opening summary, but check the rest of the text.

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