I have not read any of the Grey books, as in 50 Shades of, or the one on which FIFTY SHADES DARKER is based. Thus when I see Kim Basinger flitting through the edges of this film, looking petulant and warning our mousey heroine, Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), away from the eponymous Grey, as in Christian (Jamie Dornan), it is little more than an extended cameo than the pivotal character all the other characters believe her to be. Perhaps this pap would have been more than a steamy and badly written soap opera if I had read those books. Perhaps not. I do, however, think I can identify one of the reasons that this soft-core porn is so appealing to women. It’s not the glimpse of an opulent lifestyle, it’s not the couture clothes and the big bucks that are thrown Anastasia’s way. It’s not even the enormous attention to detail, not to mention the amount of time, that Christian spends in pleasuring her. It’s the confession from him at the outset that he is willing to change his kinky ways for her.
For the women out there who can’t get the men in their lives to put down the toilet seat, that’s got to be catnip of a most irresistible variety.
The rest is so much window dressing and melodrama. Heck, there’s even a bodice-ripping.
Anastasia, having broken away from her BDSM sexual contract with 27-year-old billionaire Christian, is pursuing her dream of becoming a book editor. She’s landed a job that will eventually lead to that, but for now she’s the subservient assistant to Jack (Eric Johnson), fiction editor at a small publishing house in Seattle. There are no blindfolds, nor any handcuffs or whips, but psychologically, it’s pretty much the same relationship she had with Christian. Speaking of Christian, naturally he comes crawling back to Anastasia, well he is chauffeured in a luxury vehicle, but it’s the thought that counts. He declares his love for her with a voice untainted by emotion, and assures her that he cannot go on without her without ever changing his expression. Won’t she have dinner with him? Won’t she consider taking him back if he will forego his kink and embrace a vanilla sex life? Won’t she take less than a split-second and only the tiniest nibble of her red and pouty lips?
Thus commences the mad whirl of a fancy masked ball, a trip around Puget Sound in a yacht, and lots and lots and lots of canoodling. Throw in a weepy stalker with wild hair and runny mascara (Bella Heathcote), a dash of sexual harassment in the workplace, and Christian’s bout of bad dreams about his troubled early life, and you have the stuff of a potboiler, and one that is ready, willing, and able to boil over into the ridiculous with alarming regularity.
It’s all so over the top that at one point I wondered if this was a satire gone wrong. But no, it’s just a film gone wrong. Johnson and Dornan have zero chemistry, and their frequent sexual couplings have all the sizzle of a chilled herring. Dornan is a stolid piece of man-candy, dark, brooking, and gruff. Yes, he’s nice to look at as he goes through his morning exercise routine, but then he starts talking, and the spell is broken.
Then there’s Johnson. A bland little thing with big eyes and body language that makes her a walking apology. Agile when taking her panties off in a restaurant, limber when exploring her wilder side in the sack, when asked to do anything else, she’s singularly uninteresting. It creates an insurmountable obstacle to giving credence to Anastasia’s quest to be her own woman, in control at work and at home.
They are surrounded by characters whose only reason for existing is to react to them. Be happy for them, fret about them, and to provide a sounding board for them when they need to talk. One is labeled Mom (Marcia Gay Hardin), one is labeled Best Friend (Eloise Mumford). I’m sure there’s a name, but it’s as forgettable as the character.
FIFTY SHADES DARKER attempts to be a character study, exposing old wounds as the reason for present kink, and in doing so, it misses the point of its existence entirely. Instead it should have stuck to what it does if not well, at least with a sense of purpose: embracing its the soft-core essence, and titillating the repressed with a kinky story safe enough to be a guilty pleasure.