Yes, of course it’s terrible.
Which you’ve probably heard by now, or probably presumed anyway months ago. Reading a review saying that Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good movie, for presumably most of you, would be like reading an article in the news saying that the sun set in the west last night. Reactions have generally fallen on one side or the other, either emphasizing that it’s better than the unreadable book (Ariel’s reaction, mirrored the Guardian going so far as call it “better than it has to be”, as well as pretty hilariously by Roxane Gay) or that it’s not watchable enough to be a good “bad” movie (thoughts shared by friend-of-the-blog Ellen and by my girlfriend). It’s sort of fascinating how reactions fall into this hazy abyss of “it’s not good… but not as bad as… but not bad enough to be good…”, which are ironically the only shades of grey actually involved in Fifty Shades of Grey.
So what does that actually mean? To the benefit of basically no one, the movie is painfully faithful to the book.
Sure, this does mean that because of the story’s stupidity and ineptitude, there is plenty of unintentional comedy gold. The movie tries in vein to filter out the book’s stupidest details, sure. Ana’s “I’ve never had a computer before!” is subtly replaced with “I’m having computer troubles” by at least someone working on this movie who had been in the 2010s decade before. But, inevitably, a great deal of it is even because of what must have been a serious journey on the strugglebus to try to bring this story to life. Ana has her cliched trip over nothing into Christian’s office, which is somehow even funnier with the magic of film, which cut the shot at her upper body so she literally trips on nothing. Jamie Dornan struggles mightily to find any way to deliver the “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.” line, which was about the point in the movie where I realized that Dornan’s interpretation of Christian Grey was basically “I don’t think he’s ever blinked”.
Which, of course, brings us to Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. Dakota Johnson’s first fifteen minutes of dialogue are 80% loud breathing, and 100% of Dornan’s dialogue throughout is conveyed with the same raspy, vaguely amused, monotone. And that pretty much sets the tone for the movie. Much has been made of how Johnson’s portrayal of Ana was the unexpected highlight of the film, and I applaud the reviewers who put so much effort into trying to find something to like about this movie. This is still E.L. Jame’s brainchild; there’s simply nothing to bring to this character. It’s like praising the depth Amanda Seyfried brought Karen in Mean Girls. I suppose they both got the characters “right” – Johnson is a perfectly amorphous Ana and Dornan nails Christian Grey in that “If someone told me this was an episode of Dexter, I might believe them” way – but I’m not sure when I last watched a movie where you could see the actors trying this hard.
However, and if there is a single redeeming scene in the movie, it’s when Ana drunk dials Christian and starts doing a mocking imitation of him and the confusing way he’s pursuing her. The result is an unexpectedly beautiful five seconds where Dakota Johnson does a better Christian Grey than Jamie Dornan does. It says a lot about the quality of the script and the source material that these people are working with. Otherwise, Johnson and Dornan’s chemistry is so absent that even the audience (which had cheered at Christian’s first “Laters, baby” and – perplexingly – at the first shot of the helicopter) laughed when Christian and Ana admired their picture in the paper and Christian stated, “It’s a good picture”, because falser words had never been said.
But then again, maybe it’s not Johnson or Dornan’s fault. Maybe their chemistry is so bad because no human would have any idea how to react to any of the nonsense that happens in this story.
So it’s bad. Yes. It’s very bad. But those hoping for a new The Room or Sharknado will be disappointed. Once I gave up on the movie somehow being good (which, admittedly, is not a hope I can say I held onto for more than a few lines of dialogue), I shifted gears into its so-bad-it’s-good potential, but it fails there too. Zillions of people come through the revolving door of minor characters for their four minutes to four seconds of screentime. Christian’s mother is shown into Christian’s apartment before Christian politely announces he’s going to show her out about two minutes later. It was when I joked, “But you just got here!” during that scene that I realized I was making the exact same quips that I do during The Room, but having way less fun.
But perhaps the most damning moment where Fifty Shades of Grey reminded me of The Room was the sex scenes, which is really pretty bad.
Despite being first and foremost an erotic romance, the sex scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey are only just not-reminiscent of the sex scenes in The Room. They certainly go on as awkwardly, painfully, “are we really going to play the verse and the chorus of the song?” long. They’re also about as close together in places as they are in The Room, sometimes literally being every other scene. They don’t even have the benefit of being unintentionally hilarious like in the book, unless you count the astonishingly terrifying soundtrack.
But despite the point I made in my piece earlier this week about how without the book’s amateurism ultimately making the movie’s problematic and completely not self-aware story worse, there are actually a number of moments where the movie is worse than the book. The ending is spread out with agonizingly slow pacing, somehow proving there was a worse possible ending than the book’s abrupt and obvious cliffhanger, and even the introduction of Christian’s “Laters, baby” catchphrase, which he steals from his brother, happens more transparently in this movie.
But maybe the best example of the movie being worse than the book – that made me go, “there was no one who thought maybe they could take at least that part out?” – was the bit where Ana lies to two
“Look at him!” one of the girls beside me breathes enthusiastically to her friend.
“He’s hot.” […]
“Must be Christian Grey.”
“Is he single?”
“I don’t think so,” I murmur.
“Oh.” Both girls look at me in surprise.
“I think he’s gay,” I mutter.
“What a shame,” one of the girls groans.
Why would Ana do this? Maybe jealousy, but it’s hard to tell in the murky waters of E L James’s character motivations. But Ana’s “I think he’s gay”, inexplicably left in the movie, actually manages to be more gay panicky, as she leans forward with a smirk on her face, makes her insinuation, and then the scene abruptly cuts, allowing an even more uncomfortable homophobia to linger in the air instead.
So the movie is bad. It’s bad as a movie, it’s bad as a so-bad-it’s-good movie, it’s bad as a story, and it’s bad as a cultural barometer. Maybe those first three are points you are already aware of, or have guessed or assumed, and have maybe long since stopped caring about. And I feel that. I recently wrote another piece about Fifty Shades and how tired I am of it for NPR, on which someone wrote a deeper-down-the-rabbit-hole kind of comment about how they’re tired of all the hate about Fifty Shades, simply because they couldn’t understand why people put so much energy into disliking it.
There are good questions to ask here. Why should anyone care? By this point, you know if you like it or not, and if you don’t, it’s just a movie. It’s just a voluntary cultural experience that you can decide isn’t your cup of tea and happily never indulge in it. But it’s that fourth point about why the movie is bad – as a cultural barometer – that is why I think it’s still worth bringing it up. Like it or not, Fifty Shades is still a product born of the society we participate in. Which isn’t to say that we all take a responsibility for it. Fifty Shades will continue to make shittons of money, to go on to make sequels that could even be written by E L James, and will probably have it’s third movie split into Fifty Shades Freed: Part One and Two, as is in accordance with the book-trilogy-to-movie-trilogy passed down to man from on high. It will continue to be a deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply problematic story that a distressing amount of people love, or at least casually enjoy.
But there’s still a conversation to bring some snark to.