Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Rita Ora
Running Time: 125 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The most shocking thing about the hotly anticipated film adaptation of E.L. James' best selling cultural phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey is how shocking it isn't. But is that even really a surprise? Going in, the big question was always going to be how they'd be able to make a mainstream 'R' rated picture out of material begging for an 'NC-17.' Well, director Sam Taylor-Johnson has, and the result is understandably compromised, as it's clear the battle for control wasn't just limited to the two lead characters on screen. This is a story of two movies: A darker, twisted one with interesting ideas struggling to break through and the one we actually get, an almost hilariously inappropriate romantic drama with certain scenes that could easily double as SNL skits. Others, meanwhile, border on being tediously repetitive and boring. And yet there are many moments when the movie actually feels somewhat subversive, possessing this clever sense of humor about itself when it turns the tables before its dud of an ending.

That this is much closer to being a success than you'd think can mostly be attributed to Dakota Johnson, who will deservedly emerge as a huge star off the back of this. But those who remember know it's been a long time coming. Say what you will about the finished product, but it's tough to claim it doesn't have a strong, independent female protagonist at its center. But the whole thing is a perplexing near-miss that leaves you wondering what the result could have been with a little more creative polishing and a less blatant attempt at translating erotic female fantasies into ticket sales. But who am I to say? Their plan apparently worked. 

Washington State University senior Anastasia Steele (Johnson), is a mousy, "girl next door" English lit major filling in for her ill roommate for a college newspaper interview with wealthy, 27-year-old entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at his Seattle offices. Upon her arrival, the clumsy Ana doesn't appear to make the strongest of first impressions, tripping before being intimidated and overwhelmed by the mysterious, enigmatic Grey. Despite struggling through an extremely uncomfortable batch of questions, he's still understandably charmed by her shyness, intelligence and beauty.

Ana leaves their meeting all hot and bothered, while he's intrigued enough to later track her down the hardware store she works. It just so happens he's looking for some duct tape, cable ties and, of course, rope. We know where this is going even if the virginal Ana doesn't, at least at first. Grey slowly indoctrinates her into his sadomasochistic world, eventually revealing his hidden "Red Room" of BDSM toys and contraptions. Confronted with very real feelings for Mr. Grey and the prospect of a written agreement making her his submissive in more ways than one, Ana attempts to get closer to someone who's idea of caring is (literally) tied up in a vicious cycle of punishment and dominance. As she's discovering, he's got some issues.

The film's biggest strength is that Ana really seems to react to this evolving situation as the mousy, intimidated 21-year-old virgin who walked into his office would. She's at first intrigued, before being turned on, then genuinely scared when she realizes this is much more than she bargained for. A lot of tiny details feel right, like the fact that she has a flip phone or that Christians parents (specifically his mom, played by Marcia Gay Harden) are nice, well adjusted people who really like their son's new girlfriend, since it's hard to believe anyone wouldn't. The cold, sterile production design  also does an effective job conveying Grey's icy, emotionless world, with each clean, empty setting looking as if it could have been ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest.

Where Kelly Marcel's script gets into trouble is when the tone of the film starts suggesting a sweeping romantic fantasy (supported by a soundtrack of snooze worthy cover songs) centered around this guy's deviant, emotionally destructive behavior. Having not read the novel, I'm only guessing this is the aspect of James' entire premise that's most widely mocked, inevitably hampering whoever eventually signed on to write or direct this material. The irony is that the "Red Room" scenes, while getting away with as much as humanly possible under an 'R' rating, pale in comparison to the uncomfortable behavior Grey exhibits with his non-disclosure agreement and binding contract. For all the talk of this being a female fantasy, the film's so loaded with full frontal female nudity that it plays much more to the guys. But given the nature of the story, that kind of makes perfect sense.   

The line between dark and mysterious and creepy and weird is crossed at many points by the borderline stalker Christian Grey. Part of that problem is the casting of a wooden, nondescript Jamie Dornan, whose only identifiable trait is that no one would be able tell him apart from Man of Steel's Henry Cavill. Robotic and emotionless, this could be a faithful interpretation of the character from the novel, but that doesn't help in making it any less boring on screen. The original choice of Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam would have worked better since he'd be better able to convey that quality necessary to convince anyone to do what he wants. With Dornan in the role I had problems believing this guy could even run a company, as Mr. Grey comes off more like Mr. Bland.

As the "relationship" progresses, the change in Ana's entire demeanor and appearance is gradual, but subtle and entirely realistic. That's all Dakota's performance. If part of this movie's goal was to take her to the next level of stardom, she delivered and then some. You could probably name a long list of actresses who on paper who have been better for the role (and some who were actually considered), but it's doubtful they would have sold the transformation Ana goes through as well, or escaped the film with the audience still on their side. There's no doubt she's the best thing in this.

Supposedly, this film is a huge improvement over the novel, doing away with some goofier elements, like Ana's interior monologue. Forgive me for just taking everyone's word on that and omitting it from my summer reading list. And considering the book was originally conceived as a piece Twilight fan fiction, we could probably guess who's to blame for much of what doesn't work in the adaptation, especially considering rumors the author exerted creative control over every aspect of the production. It's most evident in the disappointing climax (sorry), which feels like a sudden, jarring stop even by cliffhanger standards. Having read the details of one potential alternate ending, be assured it's far superior and would have made viewers heavily contemplate who's in control and what exactly that means. Maybe they just didn't think we could handle it.

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