Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

At the behest of several people, I saw Fifty Shades of Grey over the weekend. For those who have yet to encounter the basics of the “plot” in one form or another, here’s the rundown.

Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a 21-year-old college graduate who, as a favor to her roommate, meets billionaire and wet dream come true Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for an interview. They share an instant hard-on for each other that’s followed by him stalking her and buying her affections. He soon reveals that he doesn’t do romance; he only “fucks … hard” (I did not add the ellipses). They both find themselves falling in love, but Christian only wants a BDSM relationship while Ana wants romance. The movie ends with Ana asking Christian to go all out on her so that she’ll know how bad it can be, and after being disturbed by the experience, she breaks up with him. An action that would be more powerful and awesome if the series ended there, but alas, they get back together in book two with neither of them having changed as people, and are married with kids by the end of book three.

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Things that they changed from the book

Like with most adaptions, director Sam Taylor-Johnson had to make cuts and changes to the source material. I was pleased to find that this meant half of the sex scenes from the first book were nixed (including the infamous tampon scene), and certain lines of dialogue were cut or trimmed to make things less rape-y (like when he breaks into her house, she no longer says “no” and tries to kick him off).

They took out a lot of the homophobic subtext, but kept the awkward “are you gay?” question in the interview scene. They also mended some of the plot holes. For example, Ana in the book doesn’t own a computer yet is an English lit major, prompting Christian to buy her one. The film’s Ana has a computer, but it’s broken. Taylor-Johnson was also wise enough to take out Ana’s “inner goddess” and “subconscious” personas, for which I wept with joy.

The two main characters are more realistic, but are the only characters the audience gets to know. Ana doesn’t seem to hate BDSM, which makes the ending odd, but goes a long way toward making her participation in the sex seem consensual, even if the audience doesn’t see her consent all the time. Dakota Johnson’s Ana is less like the Patrick Star version of the book and more like an actual human being, but because some of the more iconic lines were kept, it felt like she was trying a little too hard.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Jamie Dornan is obviously not comfortable in the role, but because of that, his Christian is less manic and violent, which was nice. Another big improvement was that they made his character more respectful of Ana’s hard and soft limits. In the book, Christian fights her on every point, trying to convince her that she doesn’t know the difference between what she thinks and what’s a social construct. In the movie, they have an oddly lit meeting where she lists her problems with the contract, and he accepts them.

Things that they kept

Because there was never really much in the way of a plot to begin with, most of it stayed in the movie. I saw the film with two friends, neither of whom read the book in its entirety, and they both felt that the plot was rushed. One said, “It’s like they were racing to the sex scenes.” While not untrue, that’s how it works in the book. Even with cutting out half of the sex from the novel, about 50% of the movie was still soft-core porn.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

They kept the stalking, like when he shows up at her work the day after they meet, or when he follows her to Georgia, or when he tracks her cell phone. They partially kept the reference/parallels to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but tastefully limited it so the audience doesn’t realize that Tess is about rape. They kept Christian’s tragic backstory, including being sexually assaulted by his adopted mother’s best friend for six years, but they wisely framed it as pedophilia rather than have Ana being insanely jealous of Christian’s rapist.

They kept a lot of the bad one-liners that are on novelty items, like “Laters, baby”, which comes off more funny than sexy. They also kept a lot of Ana’s naive and innocent lines, like the Xbox line from the trailer, but Johnson delivers them like a punchline. They kept the emailing and texting between Ana and Christian (using the Fault in Our Stars method of on-screen text bubbles), but made them more playful and less tedious.

Things I can never unsee

Part of Jamie Dornan’s shaft, and his thrusting ass reflected in a mirror on the ceiling (seriously, who has a mirror on the ceiling?). I now am familiar enough with Dakota Johnson’s body that I could probably buy her lingerie. The unrealistic and taunting prospect of the 5 freeway without traffic in the middle of the day on a weekend. Erotic toast eating (which was infinitely better than the erotic muffin eating from the book). And Herc Hansen from Pacific Rim reduced to being a driver.

Overall

This movie was better than it had any right to be, which means it was tolerably bad. There were moments when it was self-mockingly aware of its source material. The two friends I brought with me had the benefit of a buzz, and while I was unable to do the same, I’m convinced that their path is the way to go. The plot is weak, the sex is boring (one friend fell asleep twice during her first viewing), the characters are more real than in the book but still terrible people, and the acting is mixed. It’s rumored that the leads didn’t care much for each other, and the lack of chemistry is apparent.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Jamie Dornan is wooden, his American accent is not great, and his Christian doesn’t appear to enjoy sadism. That’s probably the most conflicting part of the whole experience. As a performer, I want him to suck it up and do his job, because he’s normally not a bad actor. Yet, as a person, I like him more for not being able to be the twat waffle that Christian is.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

The best part of my moviegoing experience came in the form of a pre-trailer PSA about sexual assault, which I found ironic, but I don’t know if that was just in my theater (let me know in the comments if you saw it). Other than that, the highest compliment I can give the film is that the score doesn’t suck, but that’s not necessarily surprising, because Danny Elfman did the music. On the whole, the movie did the best that it could with what it had to work with, but is in no way a good movie.* If you’re going because you’re expecting Edward Cullen in a gimp suit, you will be disappointed. If you’re going for the prospect of seeing Dakota Johnson naked from various angles, you will not be disappointed. But porn is cheaper.

[*Especially when the author of the series is on set asking for costume changes, because “double-breasted suits ‘weren’t sexy’ and we should stick to single-breasted”, which is just ludicrous.]

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  • tcorp

    *Disclaimer: I didn’t read the books; I just saw the movie.

    I read in a few articles that Sam Taylor Johnson (the director) and E. L. James battled it out over various creative decisions, and the finished product definitely shows that. I agree with other reviewers that the first 30 or so minutes of the movie featured some really funny moments. But the rest of the movie is a chore.

    Moreover, I feel like the defense that this movie is just misunderstood because women “aren’t allowed to be sexual IRL” is a cop-out. This could have been a better movie; it just wasn’t. And I spent the entire movie trying to figure what the movie was supposed to be. If it’s supposed to be a female power fantasy, Ana doesn’t feel that powerful to me. It feels more like he’s just controlling, and she goes along with it (1) because she’s the less sexually experienced of the two of them and (2) because he’ll chase her to Georgia and back if she doesn’t. Is it supposed to just be porn? Because the sex gets boring (and eventually, uncomfortable, in the “this strongly resembles abuse” climax) about a third of the way through the movie.

    BTW, Hex, I didn’t see the PSA.

    • Hex

      I am bummed you didn’t see the PSA.

      I agree that there is a stark tonal shift wherein you can tell what is directly from the book and what wasn’t.

  • Sardu

    “Jamie Dornan is wooden, his American accent is not great, and his Christian doesn’t appear to enjoy sadism. ”

    It’s a damn shame Sam Neil was too old to do the part 😀 Well, not that I’d wish crap like this on him.

  • You mean those jokes were supposed to be sexy? How could you read any of those as sexy? They have to be jokes.

    Something tells me that the set designers to this were the best in the business because there is some kind of color symbolism going on with blue, red, white, and metal. There are also subtle things in the background like in the little bedroom Ana has there is a wall mural of a tree with a birdcage hanging from a branch, the birdcage is open but the bird is still inside (it is a cute little touch).

    And the lead actress is a void. If Anna Kendrick, Zooey Deschanel, or (god forbid) Selena Gomez were to play the part you might have a movie with some personality. (And yes I realize Anna Kendrick and Zooey would be too old for the role, but so is Dakota Johnson, they should have just dropped the whole college thing as she looks way too old for it).

    • tcorp

      “There are also subtle things in the background like in the little bedroom Ana has there is a wall mural of a tree with a birdcage hanging from a branch, the birdcage is open but the bird is still inside (it is a cute little touch).”

      The same imagery shows up in the costume design, too. When Ana goes to Grey’s office to negotiate the terms of the contract with him, the camera focuses first on the collar of her tan jacket and the collar’s gold studs. But the collar is undone. Likewise, when she takes the jacket off, the shot focuses on the long exposed zipper on the back of her dress. The whole purpose of that scene is to show how Ana’s in control at that moment. She’s only in “bondage” because she wants to be, and on her terms.

      But then, the influence of James returns to eviscerate all of that, so . . . I don’t know.

      • Hex

        I hadn’t noticed the color symbolism but I don’t doubt it.

        One moment in the movie I actually liked was when Ana texted Christian something to the effect of “missing that tie”. It wasn’t in the book but adding something as small as that made it seem, as tcorp said, “in ‘bondage’ be she wants to be, and on her terms”, like she wasn’t just tolerating sex but enjoying it. Then plot happens and ruins that illusion.

        • You know, there is a story that could be told with this set up, but this one is not it. It is dull, shirking, and without personality.

          • Hex

            There sort of is one already. Little known fact, Fifty Shades has a predecessor that isn’t Twilight. There is a series called The Submissive by Tara Sue Me which was a fanfic of Twilight first and inspired E L James. The pace is a bit fast, but a lot of my problems with Fifty Shades are fixed.

            The author describes the difference thusly “In The Submissive, Abby is in her early 30s, has a well-established career, and (most important) applies to be Nathaniel’s submissive. She knows from day one who and what he is. She accepts that, she wants thats, she grows to need that.

            Nathaniel, while being a wealthy CEO who plays piano, is also in his 30s. He only becomes involved with Abby because she has expressed interest and desire for his lifestyle.

            Both Abby and Nathaniel embrace who they are as submissive and Dominant. Their lifestyle is part of who they are, not the central plot.”

            I do have my problems with the first book, but the second book is the first book from Nathaniel’s POV and a lot of my complaints are addressed.

  • Albert Giesbrecht

    I haven’t read the book (except for select passages read by Gilbert Gottfried), or watched the film,but why were you happy that half of the sex scenes were edited out? It seems to me that’s the sole reason people wanted to see this film.

    • Hex

      I didn’t care for the sex in the books, I found it repetitive and boring. If they kept all of them in, the movie would have been another 10 or 15 minutes longer and it would have felt like 30. For me, they translated the same in the movie. The only scene I found vaguely erotic came in the form of a playful exchange that was added to the movie and had very little to do with sex.