Overview: Anastasia and Christian are up to their old tricks, but this time . . . they’ve got company. Based on the novel by E.L. James. Universal Pictures; 2017; Rated R; 118 minutes.
How Many Shades of Grey Are There Really?: When the credits rolled on 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey, there was a sense that the movie salvaged something in its closing. That film, based upon the first entry in the cash grab erotic trilogy from E.L. James, was never going to overcome its wooden dialogue and its clumsy narrative feet, but it did stick the landing in terms of structuring its character development, the elevator doors of its conclusion closing on an independently empowered Anastasia Steele. Of course, given the already-signed three-film deal and the maligned reputation of its source material, we knew there would be more. There was too much green to be made from the Grey. And so, given the inevitable destruction of that surprisingly succinct character arc, and then the mid-series director switch, fans were justified in their trepidation (and more level-headed viewers were right in their dread). But with the series’ second film, Director James Foley steps in for Sam Taylor-Johnson and makes some necessary adjustments, even as he discovers that some of the more imperative knobs are always going to be stuck at the wrong setting. There are two big obstructions that will leave Fifty Shades Darker susceptible to bruising criticism. One of these obstructions is fair critical game; the other is not just beyond the film or its director’s control, it’s almost to his credit.
Not Austen: Early in the first act of Fifty Shades Darker, in next to no film time, Anastasia has reunited with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), having seemingly negotiated him toward a more typical domestic relationship absent of the contractual ownership and borderline abusive control that forced her to leave in the first film’s climax. They find themselves in bed discussing her pre-Grey abstinence, which she explains by telling him that she was “reading Austen and Brontë and no one ever measured up to that,” but then, she adds, she found him. There’s a clever obfuscation here. It’s possible that Anastasia isn’t saying that she discovered Christian as an answer to her generically Brit. Lit. 101-inspired romantic longing, but rather, as a more interesting and modernized alternative to it.
More than the first film and, I think, more than any film this side of Magic Mike XXL, Fifty Shades Darker delights in its adoption of and pandering to the female fantasy perspective. It’s in more than just the film’s almost complete departure of the hetero-normative male gaze – and John Schwartzman’s framing showcases an erotic and thirsty fixation toward Dornan’s physique and an almost complete disinterest in Johnson’s body as anything more than a tool upon which Dornan can exercise his fetishes and strength – and it’s more than just projection of a romantic or sensual female fantasy. There are elements of albeit clumsy professional fantasy as well. From its inception to its present cinematic chapter, Fifty Shades is a story told by a woman, about a woman, to women, and Foley, a male director, does well to not intrude upon that factory line.
As such, this unfamiliar presentation of story remedies a longstanding gap in American film. But it might also, I suspect, incidentally prevent the critical recognition of some of the more intelligent elements of Fifty Shades Darker. For instance, you’re likely to stumble upon countless debates about the healthiness of Christian and Anastasia’s relationship – whether it’s sex positive or abusive, whether Anastasia is empowered or weakened by her submission to Grey’s punishment and his obsessive protectiveness. But I would comfortably predict that you’ll see far fewer conversations about the metaphor created by a working class, college graduate rebelling with a “vanilla” assault against the dehumanized, existential nihilism of unregulated American capitalism. Why doesn’t the story deserve this second discussion? It has to be noted that Grey is a venture capitalist, who we see working in only one scene as he texts distractedly through a board meeting for maybe forty seconds, but who we also see spending or throwing away money in every other scene. Outside of wealth and occupation, Grey is self-defined by fetishist involvement in an extreme BDSM-culture in which intimacy is expressed through human ownership, belittlement, and pain. The metaphor is anything but subtle. And we see Anastasia reject the capitalism and domination both figuratively and literally. She pulls him away from their sexual contracts using assertive agency, consent, and, I swear to God, a standard grocery store, but she also tears up his literal check and donates his gift of $24,000 dollars to charity.
Likewise, modern movie instincts make it a bit uncomfortable when Anastasia’s boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) forces himself upon her. But what at first feels like perhaps a forced and unnecessary sexual assault could also be interpreted as commentary regarding the difficulties of being a professional woman in a corporate world which claims to support your upward mobility, even as it holds you within the same fixed obstacle course structure. Maybe Anastasia’s trauma isn’t responsibly measured (or, measured at all beyond the scene in which it happened), but after his firing, her immediate occupation of her sexual assaulter’s position, which also happens to be her dream job, marks an interesting branch of the same dark anti-capitalist satire. Fifty Shades, after all, isn’t the story of a woman suffering to these things; it’s the story of her beating them.
Kinky Fuckery: But all of this interpretative story strength isn’t enough to polish the carryover weakness. To put it plainly, there was never any chance that E.L. James’ horrendous dialogue would translate to anything warm on screen. When the film takes on anything outside of its central characters’ obsession for one another, be it literature, publishing, standard business chit chat, or Christian’s history of abuse, it is clear that no one here knows what the hell they’re talking about. Nor do they care. When Christian first confesses the tragedy of his mom’s death in detail, Anastasia flippantly replies with “I’m glad you shared that,” before distractedly following up with “Look at that house over there!” I wish I were kidding. But that’s how it works. Their romantic chemistry is tough to come by, but again, this movie works better as something more than a standard romance. I would offer that both main performers seem more comfortable in their respective roles of psychological combatancy this time around, so comparatively, the better dynamic is a little improved and a little more clear.
The story takes some turns that the film’s tires aren’t aired to handle. Neither of the shoe-horned villains enhance the conceptual experience. Kim Basinger particularly, as Christian’s former BDSM mentor/tormentor Elle, is a tough watch, functioning only as evidence that no level of established talent could make good work of the lines provided by the script. Then there’s a weird, out-of-nowhere helicopter crash which serves no purpose.
So yeah, Fifty Shades Darker has its rough spots, but even in the middle of the mess, Foley is able to share a few meta-cinematic laughs at the expense of his movie’s somewhat goofy premise using Johnson’s under-appreciated, precise comedic timing and a few overtly gratuitous scenes of male objectification. Johnson finds a sort of joyful detachment from the self-seriousness this time, and a scene in which Christian performs a ridiculous morning exercise on a gymnastic apparatus will be the funniest scene that everyone forgets in 2017, and I’m pretty sure the humor is intentional.
Overall: When a movie defines its ambition clearly and earnestly, then we owe it to the movie to accept that ambition as a baseline beyond reproach and judge instead its approach toward achieving the goal. This makes any assessment of Fifty Shades Darker a slippery exercise. In that same exchange about Anastasia’s literary romantic handicap, Anastasia tells Christian, “I was trying to be romantic but you distracted me with your kinky fuckery.” As a meta-assessment of the film in which they operate, this is good news and bad news. The kinky fuckery holds Fifty Shades Darker‘s best material, and when it takes control of the story, the film is actually pretty good. The shame is that we have to deal with the other normal stuff, the stuff of standard romance and movie business, at all.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures