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Movie Review: 50 Shades of Grey

Bogged down by terrible performances and shoddy direction, 50 Shades of Grey is a Red Room mess.

Review by Matt Cummings

In Director Sam Taylor-Johnson's 50 Shades of Grey, billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman) 'recruits' virgin Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) to join him in his Red Room of Pain. A victim of a rough early life, Grey wants to get his kink on with the next available woman, but the 15 other slaves he's been with have all come and gone. Enter the frumpy Steele, who gets to interview Grey for the college paper from she is about to graduate. With an instant spark between them, Steele agrees to be slave #16 in Grey's Pleasure Principle, first losing her virginity to him then entering his room for a lot of sexual rumpus. But as Grey's personality begins to come out, Steele finds herself conflicted between the man she now loves and his violent sexual fetishes.

A cultural phenomena that makes little sense to me, 50 Shades is a failure that proudly displays its writing on the wall, like advertising someone's sexual abilities in a bathroom stall. The problems start early for Taylor-Johnson, beginning with his actors. There is little chemistry between Johnson and Dorman, who seem ill-prepared to break down the nuances of their characters; their performances feel like a first script read rather than a well-choreographed dance. There are a couple of moments when their performances click, such as when the two are negotiating their slave contract at a formal meeting (in which she's reading off activities and devices I can't mention here).

The rest of the non-sex time feels tedious and entirely practiced, missing multiple moments for our characters to inhabit themselves with any sense of depth. The usually good Max Martini is relegated to playing a thinly-constructed driver for Grey; his presence does nothing to further the story, and Steele never uses the opportunity to get to know Grey through him. Marcia Gay Harden's appearance as Grey's mother feels rushed, as if she's thrown into the mix for color. With news throughout the the film's production about a lack of spark between the actors - resulting in two sets of re-shoots - it's clear those troubles were never fully resolved.

The source material by E.L. James features some of the worst writing I've ever seen, and the script by Kelly Marcel is slavishly supportive of it. It's highly likely that only truly desperate women would consider Grey's proposal, either because they've lost their job and need room and board at any cost, or because their life has been so dysfunctional that a sexually-dominant man is par for the course. Steele is neither of these, so it makes her consideration feel completely disingenuous, as if she's made drunk by Grey's money and power without realizing what signing on truly means. So when he first deflowers her (yes, she's a virgin at the beginning of this), then turns her to the riding crop, we're left to wonder why. Steele deserves better, but instead chooses the bad boy, not because he's cool or whose kink offers a deeper sexual experience, but because he is bad. Nice choice.

At 125 minutes, 50 Shades also suffers from being too long; Editor Lisa Gunning lets Taylor-Johnson ramble through too much set up that includes Steele's unnecessary relationship with her roommate (played by Eloise Mumford) and a poorly-shot glider scene that was done better in The Thomas Crown Affair. These and many others do nothing to further the plot or the characters, perhaps (unintentionally) showing how much love and freedom Grey does have in his life. Instead, he squanders it with a collection of cinematic scowls and the demand that he must be dominant to be happy. You don't need that extra 20 minutes to make your point, and without it we could have enjoyed a tighter and ultimately stronger production.

Some of the sex scenes have some legitimate steam to them, but Taylor-Johnson doesn't push the envelope quite enough, providing us with an overabundance of Johnson's parts but nothing of Dorman's. In a film like this you have to give both sides their due, and by the time we're done, we've overdosed on Johnson's rail-thin body (that girl serious needs a sandwich) and denied most of Dorman, besides what looks like gunshot wounds all over this chest rather than scars indicative of a sexually violent lifestyle.

There's also nagging technical issues to discuss. I'm sure Taylor-Johnson is a fine director who knows his craft, but in 50 Shades he literally shoots many of his scenes out focus, missing the beauty of the Seattle skyline and even making Grey's Red Room of Pain look more like a commercial for a sex shop rather than highlighting the beauty of his devices or the rich colors of the room. Part of this lies squarely on Gunning, whose edits don't give us enough time to enjoy them. But to have scenes literally out of focus is inexcusable, and they're strewn everywhere like Anastasia's clothing around Grey's apartment.

But more important, 50 Shades misses a golden opportunity to kick open the door on sexual taboo. In a time when fashion and the media encourage women to dress and even act provocatively, 50 Shades does nothing to continue the conversation about the loosening up of our world-famously rigid sexual standards. Instead it furthers the notion that sexual submission/dominance are a dysfunction, enamored by messed-up people who merely like to control and hurt others in the process. For fans of 9 1/2 Weeks, Crash, or Basic Instinct, 50 Shades will feel like some sort of hack production, centered around a cheaply-crafted love story that only shows what happens when good people meet weirdos. Granted, you can only do so much with a book that reads like it was written by a 12-year-old, but any opportunity to improve upon it is ultimately squandered.

In the end, 50 Shades of Grey misses the point about sexual dominance with a wooden cast, poor direction, and a runtime that will leave you yawning in parts. Perhaps future installments will get it right, but considering the source material it's unlikely to happen. In a time when so many of our standards are undergoing significant upheaval, 50 Shades does nothing to set that conversation or direct it any meaningful way.

50 Shades of Grey is rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language and has a runtime of 125 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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