By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
This ploddingly passionless serving of corporate-approved softcore smut is as flavorless and phony as the GMO tomatoes that should be thrown at the screen each time its brainless heroine bites her lip, utters something childishly stupid that’s supposed to be charmingly irresistible or resorts to a blankly big-eyed expression of mentally challenged cluelessness that can only be described as “huh?”
Being in possession of a Y chromosome, an IQ over 60 and online access to more full-bodied filth in which the camera never cuts away from bed-shaking to pancake-making, I have no idea how closely this detumuscently dull adaptation may hew to the text of the bestselling “Fifty Shades of Grey” novel. Perhaps writer E.L. James’ deathless prose weaves a richly engrossing tapestry of stimulatingly intelligent wordplay that’s a heady brew of dark eroticism and psychosexual suspense. After all, I’ve heard there’s a shockingly messy tampon-yanking-as-foreplay scene in the print version that didn’t make it into the film, and that always worked for Nabokov and Flaubert.
What’s on the big screen, however, feels more like what would result if Disney and Wal-Mart teamed up to concoct a reassuringly not-too-dirty movie for the kind of easily titillated females that feel compelled to go “woot woot” at each glimpse of necktie loosening, shirt unbuttoning, manly chest baring or he-man haunch-flexing.
Their viewpoint character here is the unlikely named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a virginal soon-to-be college graduate who is so stupid she literally forgets how to open her car door and later feels it necessary to ask, “What’s a butt plug?” She says she can’t get e-mail because her computer is “broken,” her badly cut bangs get shorter and longer from scene to scene and she resorts to the bizarre rom-com post-coital cliché of draping herself in an entire sheet when she strolls barefoot from the boudoir.
Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a billionaire businessman and world-saving philanthropist whose mother was a crack whore, was introduced to the dominant/submissive lifestyle by an older woman at age 15. Now that he’s paid the cost to be the boss, he has a red leather “playroom” that looks about as exotically taboo as the well-lit library of a gentlemen’s club, with tastefully displayed flogs, whips, riding crops and cuffs.
The plot consists entirely of Anastasia consenting to occasional coerced coitus with Christian, but dithering about whether to sign a contract that would make her his Fridays-to-Sundays live-in sex slave. This leads to understandable exasperation on the part of the increasingly peeved Christian, who says he has sealed the same deal with 15 previous residents of his spare bedroom.
What director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel don’t seem to realize is that there are few things less stimulating than watching a skittish, giggling twit resisting the pathetically desperate advances of a man whose obsessive attraction to her defies both logic and lust. She’s a moron, she doesn’t know what she’s doing in the sack and she makes Christian cross out some of his stipulated sex acts during contract negotiations without offering any sweeteners in exchange. What a catch!
The flick ends up being the most eye-rollingly unerotic “kinky sex” book adaptation since 1994’s egregious “Exit to Eden,” and that featured Rosie O’Donnell in black leather. When it comes to S&M, skittish Anastasia ultimately undergoes nothing more than some light bondage, a short spanking, a palm sting and six swats on the ass. The movie is so timidly genteel that the camera doesn’t deign to show even a single red mark on Anastasia’s hindparts after she tearfully endures those half-dozen lashes.
In other words, this hokey Harlequin romancery comes off like very weak near-beer compared to the more explicit harder stuff on display in last year’s steamy, shocking and genuinely disturbing Lars von Trier opus “Nymphomaniac Volume 1 and 2.” The fact that “Fifty Shades” star Dakota Johnson could pass as a lobotomized lookalike for “Nymphomaniac” star Charlotte Gainsbourg makes the comparison even more painful.
On the clinical side, anyone hoping for a peek at the lovers’ naughty bits here should be warned that this watered-down R-rated production is only a “boobs, butts and a bit of bush” affair. That means Mr. Grey’s little Christian never makes an appearance in any form whatsoever. Not once. Never. Sorry, ladies.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is to sex what “American Sniper” is to war: an unsatisfyingly simplistic fantasy about keeping empathy, passion and danger at a safe distance, then exiting when everything gets to be a bit much. It’s an anticlimax in both senses of the term, and good date-night fare only for those who think it’s hot to hear “no” more often than “yes”…along with a lot of loud “woot woots.”
If the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series of novels and this silly movie truly are the answer to the timeless question “what do women want?” — as book and ticket sales overwhelmingly seem to indicate — then an awful lot of people really need to have some sense slapped into them.