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Entries in 50 Shades of Grey [2015] (1)

Saturday
Feb142015

50 Shades of Grey (2015)

A Miracle of Mass-Market Misogyny (Misandry, Too)

50 Shades of Grey is Twilight with tits, and I don't just mean Dakota Johnson's exhaustively present breasts. Her character's a boob, too, and so's the guy she mistakes for a love interest. Worse yet, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel do little to cover up the fact that E.L. James' blockbuster erotic novel began life as Twilight fan fiction.

Stop me if you've heard this before: In a permanently overcast Washington town, a shy, virginal student falls for the man of few words with secrets behind his wildly obsessive eyes. She's a blank slate of a heroine, whose personality radius shrinks in the presence of two best buds: a gabby, flirty roommate and an over-eager Friend Zone hunk. She spends a lot of time listening to music and staring into space. He saves her from being hit by a car. She bites her lip and stammers a lot. He habitually tells her that their getting together is a really bad idea.

Sadly, Edward and Bella are Bogey and Bacall compared to Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Twilight may have been garbage, but the series' early movies at least offered up puppy-love laughs, bad CGI, and rotten mythology. 50 Shades of Grey drains the template of humor and replaces it with dread.

Full disclosure: I haven't read the 50 Shades trilogy. Like The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, I put it down after enduring thirty pages of sophomoric writing, and decided to wait for the movie (actually, James' book holds the record at six pages). I believe a film should stand on its own entertainment merits, and source material should act as an enhancement--not a necessity. On those grounds, the film is conventionally glossy and well put together. It wears high-school-lit-class visual motifs on its sleeve, and the so-called sensual stuff was topped two decades ago by Basic Instinct.

Contrary to popular consensus, 50 Shades of Grey is neither sexy nor empowering. A story needs an actual female protagonist in order to achieve those relatively low hurdles, and Anastasia doesn't qualify. She's an easily manipulated, hot-librarian male fantasy who's never even touched a boy, and who quivers at Mr. Right's caress. A multi-dimensional character might call the police when the man she rebuffs shows up inside her apartment with two wine glasses. She might leave the negotiating table when reading phrases like "anal fisting" (!) and "vaginal clamps" (!!) in the sex contract (!!!) he insists that she sign during weeks of phone-and-text stalking. Hell, she might even sense duplicity in Mr. Grey's claim that she is "special", despite his having confessed to procuring similar contracts from fifteen other women--all of whom were required to sleep in rooms on separate floors, post-coitus.

But no. She's a willing participant in her own twisted seduction. Like so much bad romantic fiction, Anastasia insists on fixing and/or saving Christian from the haunted past that made him into a manipulative, materialistic prick. That's fine for week one, but by film's end she's put herself through the emotional wringer for months, without a hint that he's willing to A) open up or B) change.* She believes that by subjecting herself to bondage and spanking that he'll come to trust her enough to become someone he's clearly not. I can't wait for the day when someone does a super-cut of the film and replaces Christian Grey with Christian Bale from American Psycho--same character, different effect on the libido.

For as unflattering a portrait of women as 50 Shades of Grey paints, men don't get off lightly, either. Yet again, we have a super-cut, super-cute rich guy who doesn't do the whole "feelings" thing. Dornan plays this well, aided as much by the fact that he's barely called upon to emote as his resemblance to the fictitious love child of Eric Bana and Ryan Phillippe. He pouts. He broods. He looks quizically at anyone who dares question him. He gets off on slapping women around, physically and emotionally. He successfully removes the one guy who's genuinely romantically interested in Anastasia from her life. Oh, and he occasionally sees the fifty-year-old woman who introduced him to sex and bondage at age fifteen.** 

In the end, my biggest problem with 50 Shades of Grey is that it's not a real movie. It's a franchise kick-off that saves any semblance of character development, motivation, or story momentum for the next installment (I would assume). Even Twilight's first film bothered to have a beginning, middle, and end, with hints as to where the story might go afterwards. The hubris behind Taylor-Johnson's film is almost as galling as its pro-codependent-abuse message.

I have zero interest in whatever kink or back story Taylor-Johnson and James have in store for their inevitable sequel. They had me for two hours and failed to make a case. I would be open to reading some 50 Shades of Grey fan fiction, though, in which media-conglomerate CEO Anastasia Steele asserts her powerful sexuality by beating domineering-jerk contemporary Christian Grey at his own game. Such a healthy dose of level-playing-field smut could ignite the entertainment world, instead of pandering to audiences with zero self-esteem and even less imagination.

*I won't go so far as to suggest that the only reason Anastasia puts up with Christian's nonsense is his ridiculous wealth and fame. But I wouldn't argue the point, either. If your unemployed neighbor took this behavior for a test drive, I guarantee you'd see him with a fresh black eye every week, and an ankle bracelet within six months.

**In a gender-switched alternate universe, this would be known as "statutory rape". But in the here-and-now, it's a high-five-worthy origin story, bro.