Film: Fifty Shades Darker‘s Blandness Problem
Director. James Foley., Writer. Niall Leonard., Performers: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan.
Bad movies have a certain premium in entertainment currency. That premium relies almost exclusively on the ability for a bad film to remain entertaining in spite of its intentions. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is perhaps the best example of a film whose intended purpose is contradicted wholly by every aspect of its execution; becoming a kind of strange masterpiece of revenge softcore pornography, whose idiosyncrasies simply enhance every viewing as you try to puzzle together just what’s going on. My favorite box-office bust of this type in recent years is The Wachowski’s space Twilight Team-Jacob fanfic, Jupiter Ascending, that somehow tries to simultaneously be Twilight, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Dune, all wrapped in a 90s anime aesthetic.
The greatest curse a bad movie can have is the bane of mediocrity; of an execution that is neither massively incompetent nor exceptional, is comfortable but lacking charm, and/or devoid of innovative, creative plot and characters. Change any one of these elements and a film can become interesting; romantic comedies of the 90’s and 00’s may have been bland, sexist, heterosexist, and smarmy, but they were at least charming in their character’s positivity.
In looking at 50 Shades Darker‘s film adaptation, the increased competency of the filmmaking since the first film (Fifty Shades of Grey) hurts it, and hurts it badly; not that this may matter considering the number of people in the theatre I saw it with, on the weekend. A full house left the film satisfied, even if they tittered at the film’s clumsiest moments.
There’s an informal Hollywood rule that Kevin Smith cites in An Evening With Kevin Smith; while drafting a script for a Superman feature that never-was, the producer demanded he put in an action-beat every ten pages (asking Smith for Supes to fight polar bears in the arctic, in lieu of any villain at that point in the script). I can think of no film that exemplifies this practice more than the James Cameron-penned Rambo: First Blood Part 2, which is paced like every beat was calculated with a metronome; rendering the pacing practically meaningless since it quickly becomes devoid of tension. Replace action beat with sex-scene and you have a road map for 50 Shades of Grey the Movie: Part 2.
This is also a fundamental difficulty with adapting 50 Shades of Grey in general, due to the imaginative properties that the writing lends to the sex. Sex is particularly abstract in 50 Shades novels, and is marked with a number of call-and-response signifiers. When reading the series I found this interestingly similar to the 16th Century Chinese martial arts monster epic, Journey to the West. At the beginning of every fight in Journey to the West, after a bit of posturing, The Monkey King exclaims to his opponent, “Come have a taste of my rod!” The fight afterward is spare, and the description of the bulk of it is “And then they fought for one hundred rounds” until the characters tire. Only after these battles result in a stand-still does The Monkey King try some different tack that results in clever success.
50 Shades of Grey in text form is similar, except that it’s Christian Grey’s rod that gets use for 100 superlative rounds. Anastasia Steele pouts and Christian wants to bite her lip, her “inner goddess” exults, and the bulk of the sex is left to the imagination of the audience, except where it involves some new matter of sexual invention. The value of 50 Shades‘ sex scenes is the opportunity for the audience to invest in them whatever specific fantasy they have for the height of sexual excitement, without ever being specific enough to limit people projecting their own desires on the situation.
This is problematic for 50 Shades Darker the film, its sex scenes by nature require a certain specificity to match it’s earnest tone, but instead of trying to scale the peaks of the audience’s imagination, or create an abstract visual tableau to allow viewers to create their own fantasy, it settles on a boring plateau of unimaginative sex that isn’t particularly even interestingly shot. Everything about these scenes feels rushed and formulaic, trying to play as safely as possible with the concept of outré sex by removing anything uncanny about it. The movie is at its best when it attempts to frame the transgressive sexual acts as emotionally exciting (as in a scene where Anastasia takes off her panties at a restaurant when Christian asks for them, creating some environmental tension) but the majority follows a bland soullessness.
50 Shades Darker is simply not bad enough to be interesting. Its Seattle and Portland feel like actual places, as opposed to the cartoonish iterations in the first film. The performances are a tad more credible, and the plot enters a milquetoast rhythm that pushes Christian Grey’s BDSM activities as a addiction metaphor brought on by childhood trauma—his character could have easily been an alcoholic and the narrative would remain completely intact—which renders them moot as a source of fascination; it becomes prosaic. There is nothing queer in the movie, in any sense of the word, contributing to its overall blandness.
Even the baldly ridiculous pace of the film—Christian asks Anastasia to marry him just a few scenes after he asks her to move in, before she agrees to cohabit with him—do it no favors. Returning stars Jamie Dornan (Christian) and Dakota Johnson (Anastasia) do their earnest best, and perhaps this also harms the narrative, since the line readings come off as comical rather than the surreal juxtaposition that hangs over the true weirdness of bad movies. Great bad movies have an unintentional Lynch or Cronenbergian weirdness to them—often paired with a great mix of psychosexual weirdness—but without anyone to orchestrate the chaos those directors consistently channel. When I imagine the weirdness that Ryan Gosling—at one point rumored to be shortlisted for the Grey role—could have invested in a film adaptation, my bad/weird movie fan heart breaks a little.
Fifty Shades 2 doesn’t have it, and it’s actually hurt by the temporal ambiguity of the medium. The accelerated pace of the relationship in the books has all of the events of a difficult and tumultuous relationship occurring in just a few weeks, making for a truly WTF headshake if you stop and think about the characters’ behavior. 50 Shades 2 would have faired better—at least more interesting—had it made this explicit. It tries, in a way. The growth of Christian Grey’s facial hair is clearly supposed to indicate it’s only been a week since the events of the last film, and its slow growth throughout the rest of the film the short passing of just a few days. But it’s not enough, and I found myself drafting weeks of imaginary activity in their lives to fill in the gaps between fade-ins and fade-outs that were meant to indicate a single night.
Considering the condensed and accelerated pace of the final book, Fifty Shades Freed, it’ll be interesting to see if the final film in the trilogy (slated for Valentines day, a Wednesday mid-week release next year) can even be confined to a mild-mannered container. Reportedly, original author E.L. James battled with directors of the prior film to keep it as true to the source material as possible. Honestly, nothing would make the final film more watchable, not because it’s more naturally suitable for adaptation, but because a trainwreck is more interesting to watch than a traffic jam.