FILM REVIEW – FIFTY SHADES DARKER. With Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden. Written by Niall Leonard. Directed by James Foley. Rated R for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language. 118 minutes.
Are you familiar with the expression “vanilla sex?” It refers to plain, old-fashioned lovemaking with nothing weird or kinky. The “Fifty Shades of Grey” series–FIFTY SHADES DARKER being the film of the second book–purports to take us into the world far beyond that, of dominance and submission, of bondage and discipline, of sadism and masochism. Yet the picture-book result can’t even reach the level of outrageousness of a provocative photo shoot in a high end fashion magazine. Better to call it “butter pecan sex.”
When we last saw Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), she had ended her relationship with handsome young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Now out of school and working as an assistant to fiction editor Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) as a Seattle publishing house, she finds a penitent Christian pleading to be readmitted to her life. After a brief hesitation, they’re together again, and she has to deal with his bossy ways as well as his repressed vulnerabilities. Other than the fact that they’re both very pretty, it’s hard to tell what they see in each other.
As before, the film’s idea of “kinky sex” is laughably tame. In 2017 is a man orally pleasuring a woman considered so beyond the pale? He brings out a toy or two, mostly wrist and ankle restrains that don’t restrain her for very long. We discover along with her details of Christian’s history which leads to the admission that he isn’t a “dominant” but a “sadist” who enjoys inflicting pain on women who look like his late mother. That the film offers scant evidence to support this declaration is besides the point. The target audience for these books and movies aren’t serious kinksters who, in reality, must find the proceedings laughably tame, but for those seeking escape into romantic melodrama but who don’t have the patience for serious literature like “Jane Eyre” or “Wuthering Heights.”
For those unaware, the series began as “fan fiction” (or fanfic) related to the “Twilight” series. When they proved popular, the names and character biographies were changed, but the same old claptrap remained. Naturally, the path of true love doesn’t run smooth. A helicopter crash provides a bit of dramatic relief, but only a bit, and the story ends on potential threats for Christian and Anastasia coming from three possible directions: his former mentor (an odd turn by Kim Basinger), a former “sub” still obsessing over him (Bella Heathcote), and Anastasia’s now-former boss.
The best that can be said for the films is that because Christian is unbelievably wealthy, all the sets are lavish from his yacht to his apartment to his parents’ estate. In small snippets you could even imagine some of the scenes here set up for, say, a perfume ad. That doesn’t make up for the badly written characters and the weak plot, unless all you’re seeking is this safest of “dangerous” fantasies.
What will happen next? Can Anastasia’s willingness to go to the “red room” (Christian’s plush dungeon) get any duller? Will his mother Grace (Marcia Gay Harden) get to throw yet another party? Will Johnson and Dornan manage to have careers when these films are done? We’ll find out next year in what we can only hope will be the final entry in the series, “Fifty Shades Freed.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released this month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.