Great literature often defies cinematic adaptation. Bad novels, on the other hand, are right up Hollywood’s alley.
Those who take reading even halfway seriously agree that E.L. James’ best-selling “Fifty Shades of Grey” is wretched stuff. A page-turner, perhaps. But wretched.
And yet the movie version — the first 45 minutes or so, anyway — is actually kinda fun, embracing a tongue-in-cheek (no pun intended) sensibility that finds unexpected humor in James’ heavy-panting tale of fabulous wealth and kinky sexual proclivities.
One only wishes that director Sam Taylor-Johnson (whose only previous feature was her young-John-Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy”) had gone whole hog in slyly subverting the whole “Fifty Shades” phenomenon.
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She’s taken a safe middle ground — nothing to outrage the novel’s loyal fans, but enough wryness that a non-believer can find the experience mildly amusing. And, thank heaven, the movie doesn’t force us to wade through James’ purple prose.
Credit for the film’s strong first half rests largely on Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith), who plays college student Anastasia “Ana” Steele as an adorably dweeby girl-next-door.
She agrees to fill in for her ailing editor roomie for a newspaper interview with Christian Grey (former model Jamie Dornan), the 27-year-old billionaire industrialist. There’s a great deadpan comic moment when she pulls up to the Grey House in downtown Seattle, finds a parking spot right in front of the entrance (religions have been founded on less) and stares up at the phallic skyscraper with open-mouthed awe.
In the interview she’s flustered and dorky. He’s self-assured and serious. But clearly this obscenely rich, piano-playing, helicopter-and-glider-flying hunk sees something in this young woman that turns him on.
Yeah, it’s the old Cinderella story, only in this version Prince Charming is less moon-June-swoon than find-bind-grind.
For as their courtship progresses, Christian — an emotionally buttoned-down sort who doesn’t “do” romance — reveals himself to be an S&M dominant. He keeps a torture chamber filled with bondage equipment, whips, rods and other naughty paraphernalia.
Told that Christian has a “play room,” the naive Ana asks: “For your Xbox?”
Like I said. Adorable.
The more serious their relationship gets, though, the less fun “Fifty Shades” becomes. In fact the film’s 20 or so minutes of nudity and heavy breathing left this viewer cold.
Perhaps it’s because the sex is screamingly unrealistic. Ana is a virgin, and yet she’s instantly orgasmic. I’ll have what she’s having.
Of course, Ana does have some qualms about Christian’s gnarly tastes, and the film’s second half is devoted to her indecision over whether to sign the submissive’s contract he has drawn up so that their relationship can advance. Nothing says “I love you” like a non-disclosure document.
In the final stretch I found myself squirming — less from sexual overheating than from disinterest.
It’s not overstating the case to say that Dakota Johnson achieves stardom with this role. She mines moments of humor that help offset the soul-searching and weeping, and she’s appealing without being impossibly beautiful.
Dornan (he played a family man/serial killer in Netflix’s “The Fall”) has the less demonstrative role, and comes off as humorless and stiff. Fact is, if Christian Grey wasn’t rich and good looking, smart women would steer clear.
The production is shiny and expensive-looking, and you’ve gotta love music director Danny Elfman’s sly song choices, from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” to the Stones’ “Beast of Burden” and Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”
This is just the first film in a planned trilogy. Will the movies improve? All we can do is gird our loins and wait.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘FIFTY SHADES OF GREY’
Rated R | Time: 2:05