It’s true what they say: familiarity breeds contempt. And the more I get to know the characters in the Fifty Shades film, the more I find them stupid and loathsome. Right off the top, we find Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) at a new job as an assistant and copywriter for a sizable publishing company, and still being pursued by billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), even though the couple has broken up. In BDSM, consent is essential and the first film caught a significant amount of criticism for presenting a problematic S/M relationship without clear boundaries. That said, Fifty Shades Darker attempts to remedy this by having Christian and Ana renegotiate their relationship. Now if she wants to be spanked, it’s because she wants to be spanked. Ana finds acceptable so they start dating again.
Both Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker share a common, major flaw. They are about people who talk a lot about feelings and love and closeness and pain, but we never see any clear-cut examples of any of them. There’s a lot of telling, but almost no showing. They simply go do something naughty in public (a bar, a restaurant, a party), get themselves worked up enough to go home and have mostly vanilla sex (which he’s now okay with), and wake up the next morning to either talk about what direction their relationship needs to go, or they argue. I can’t remember the last time so much on screen nudity felt so joyless and dull.
Fifty Shades Darker also moves from set piece to set piece with no real acknowledgement or repercussions of what has just come before. A woman (Bella Heathcote), who turns out to be a stalkery ex of Christian’s, shows up outside of Ana’s office, acts nuts, and goes away. She comes back later, but there’s not a real conversation about her behavior until things escalate, then the problem is dealt with, and everybody moves on. Then there’s Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger), Christian’s “Mrs. Robinson,” who seduced him at a young age. She shows up all over the places, warns Ana that Christian will never change and will always be hers. She’s dealt with, and that’s it.
The ultimate example of this is a five-minute sequence in which Christian’s helicopter breaks down in midair, crashes and he’s nowhere to be found. He then just shows up a few moments later saying “No worries. I’m okay,” and everything continues as if nothing nearly tragic almost happened. It’s truly as if screenwriter Niall Leonard (working from the book by E.L. James) and veteran director James Foley (At Close Range, After Dark, My Sweet, Glengarry Glen Ross) have no idea how basic plot structure works, let alone any sense of dramatic tension or consequences or emotional follow through. An event happens, then another, then another, followed by another. It’s like reading a book, and as soon as your turn the page, you’ve forgotten what happened on the pages before.
The one vague exception to this rule is a ridiculous storyline involving Ana’s boss, Jack (Eric Johnson), who encourages her at work and seems to trust his opinion on books coming across her desk, until he decides to be a creep and come on to her in a mildly threatening way, with no indication that he’s like that until the exact moment he acts that way. There are no hints of bad behavior until it becomes necessary to the plot. Now imagine an entire film like that. Actually, you don’t have to; here it is, in all of its softcore glory.
The overall story arc of Fifty Shades Darker is that Christian is willing to change and become more normal as a sexual partner because of his growing love for Ana. There’s almost a sense that his devotion to her turns her on so much that she starts accepting the kinky parts of his behavior, just as he’s trying to eliminate them from his repertoire. If that’s actually where this series was headed (there’s a brief preview of the Fifty Shades Freed final chapter during the end credits), that might be something interesting and worth exploring, but I don’t believe for a second that’s what things are building toward. The idea of her going off the sexual deep end while he reigns his desire in could be an actual source of real drama, which is why I’m positive we’ll never see that.
The idea that these two morons are building a future together is almost too terrifying to contemplate, and its doesn’t help that they’re both played by actors struggling create some drama and emotion out of a screenplay sadly lacking in both. I’m not passing judgement on Johnson or Dornan as actors—I’ve seen them both in better films where they give impressive performances—but when you’ve got nothing to sink your teeth into, the performance suffers.
The thought of suffering through another one of these in a year makes my head hurt, and I think it’s quite telling that this series does not seem to have sparking a resurgence in more adult-oriented romance films. Perhaps if the characters actually acted like adults, that might have made the difference. Instead the act like people with brain injuries and short-term memory loss, the lucky bastards.