Defending this movie is like Donald Trump defending one of his executive orders. The built-in base will eat it up. Others will accept it, with reservations. And everyone else will run for the cinematic equivalent of Canada. So the bottom line is this: If you’ve read the books (as I have) and were at least okay with the first film (as I was), then you may feel compelled to escape back into the unconventional romantic fantasyland that is Fifty Shades Darker. It’s not a must-see now, unless you’re into instant gratification, but it is essential to the climax of the film adaptation of the steamy story arc detailed in the best-selling trilogy by E.L. James. Part three, Fifty Shades Freed, has already been shot and is scheduled for release next Valentine’s Day, 2018. So you have a year to debate your inner goddess (as Anastasia would say) on the merits of seeing this relationship through to its happily-ever-after. This is, after all, nothing more than a risqué fairytale written –without apology– in the vein of Twilight fan-fiction. Shakespeare it aint. But it is a very lucrative enterprise. So somebody’s making out.
Anyway, back to the film itself. Fifty Shades Darker picks up where Fifty Shades of Grey left off. Recent college grad Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) has opted out of her “relationship” with young, hot billionaire businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) because his sadomasochistic lifestyle isn’t really working for her. She wants less paddling, and more hearts and flowers. That’s a new concept for him—but for her, he’s willing to try, especially since they’ve both been miserable apart. So they establish new ground-rules and get reacquainted. From that point on, Fifty Shades plays like a fairly traditional romantic drama, except for several kinky sex scenes that border on soft porn. He’s a wounded soul, still reeling from a tortured childhood. She wants to save him. They kiss and make up (and make out) a lot. That’s the basic plot. But there are external threats to the budding relationship that briefly dominate parts two and three of the trilogy: Ana’s new boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) is a letch (and not in a Christian Grey sort of way); one of Christian’s former “submissives” (Bella Heathcote) is stalking the pair; and Christian’s old friend Elena (Kim Bassinger) is doing everything she can to undermine Ana’s confidence in herself and in Christian’s ability to change. Yes, it’s one big soap opera.
My biggest gripe, having read the books, is that the second film is missing a lot of the emotional turmoil and supporting character development that does exist in the novels (somewhere between the lines, and orgasms.) The first film, Fifty Shades of Grey in 2014 seemed to set the stage well enough for the sequels, despite some lingering misgivings about the casting. It was surprisingly tasteful and almost artsy in its direction by a woman director, Sam Taylor-Johnson. But she didn’t direct Fifty Shades Darker or the upcoming Fifty Shades Freed. That honor went to a guy, James Foley, whose vibe is far less stylistic and way more superficial (though it does feature some nice cinematography and a cool soundtrack.)
Ultimately, Fifty Shades is one of those “I know it’s pretty bad, but I can’t stop watching” escapist yarns that resembles a Hallmark or Lifetime movie amped up the whazoo, for mature audiences only. The dialogue is often atrocious, dripping with romance-novel cliche. But Christian and Ana are a good-looking pair with a serviceable amount of chemistry. So in the end, all is forgiven. Because in the end, hardcore Grey’s fans are gluttons for punishment. See you Valentine’s Day, 2018! Perhaps in Canada!
Note: There’s a line of dialogue in FSD that is directly lifted from the 1988 romantic dramedy Working Girl. It didn’t occur to me until after the fact that it wasn’t plagiarism, per se, but rather an awkward homage to Dakota Johnson’s mother, Melanie Griffith. Do you really want Mom at this movie, Dakota?
Also, if you’re dying for a brief tease of what’s to come, be sure and stick around through the end credits. That is all.