Hammering Out… is a series of movie reviews featuring a lively he said/she said discussion between John and Julie. Next up: 50 SHADES OF GREY.
JULIE: I’ve made mention before that action scenes (especially car chases) tend to put me right to sleep. But I’d never fallen asleep during a “getting action” scene, at least not until last night.
If you’ve been living under a rock, 50 Shades of Grey is the movie version of the best selling novel that started out as Twilight fan fiction. It’s about a young girl’s journey from Milan to Mi–I mean, from innocent college virgin to slightly less innocent plaything of a Bruce Wayne-level rich dude.
JOHN: Pretty sure everybody knows that already. Lots to say here, but I suppose we should start with our familiarity of the source material. I’ve never read the books. Never cared to. Heard about the whole Twilight fan fiction aspect and tuned out after that. But, then their popularity skyrocketed. Everyone seemed to be talking about them. All of a sudden, I knew about BDSM romance, grabbing joysticks, being “50 shades of fucked up,” getting “fucked into next week,” and smacking a clitoris with a hair brush.
So, I did what any naturally inclined nonreader would do. I went to Wikipedia and read the plot synopsis for the first book, just so I could get some context and see what all the fuss was about. No offense, 50 Shades fans, but it sounded super lame and I was like, “that’s it? That’s all that happens?” Then, you told me you read the first 50 pages and said it was so poorly written you had to stop. Tell us about that.
JULIE: I read the free Kindle excerpt and couldn’t get past that. Kids, the writing is BAD. Also, honestly, this is one of those situations where the more I heard about the books, the more I realized that it just wasn’t my bag. Also, it’s long; and if you’re going to ask me to read something that’s one million pages long, it had better be good. It had better be Song of Ice and Fire good.
You know I’m going to want to get into the storytelling, so first, how about if you talk about the filmmaking aspect of the movie.
JOHN: Well, I gotta say I like the fact that Universal/Focus went with a female screenwriter (Kelly Marcel, Saving Mr. Banks) and a female director (Sam Taylor-Johnson, Nowhere Boy), and are making a movie aimed directly at women. That’s altogether too rare in Hollywood, and it’s nice that they have a big fat huge hit on their hands. If this movie creates more opportunities like that in the future, that’s a good thing.
I also think they’ve classed up the book, and given it some (mild) legitimacy. There’s a decent sense of humor in the early goings, and many of our audience members were laughing, as I think the filmmakers intended. That goes away later, as the laughs become unintentional. This is a competently made, if unexceptionally shot and poorly paced movie. It drags. And, as you’ve already alluded, it’s not sexy. For couples seeing this on a date night, it’s like anti-foreplay.
Dakota Johnson is quite good as Anastasia Steele, even though there’s not much to her character. She looks good naked (helpful, because she often is), and should come out of this unscathed despite her over-tendency to bite her lip. Jamie Dornan doesn’t fare as well as Christian Grey (i.e., the dumbest character I’ve ever seen). He looks the part, but he doesn’t have range or charisma or much of a personality. He gives a one-note performance in a role that required so much more. Charlie Hunnam would have been way better.
But, man, can we talk about the “plot”? Because, the plot for this movie is, to quote Chris Traeger, literally the worst.
JULIE: We talked about it a bit last night, and I still maintain that there’s a good story to be told here. It’s probably been told better in other BDSM-themed novels that I’m not aware of because they haven’t been on the New York Times best seller list or made into a mainstream movie (feel free to list them in the comments). There is definitely something intriguing about a girl who has lived a safe, dull existence, being thrust (ha) into a relationship where she’s not sure if the dude is really into being with her as a person or just into being with someone whom he knows he can control. Unfortunately 50 Shades of Grey is not that intriguing story.
JOHN: I have heavy doubts that there’s a good story to be found anywhere near here, certainly not with EL James’ book as the “bible” (and from what I read, she sure does have an inflated sense of her book’s integrity), but, sure, taking the broad strokes you’ve just outlined and running in a completely different direction with it could potentially work in the right hands. But, to even say that this movie has a story is being generous. There is no story. Boy meets girl. Boy wants girl to sign a contract. Boy stalks her and keeps asking her to sign a contract. What is this shit?
JULIE: This shit is boring. And sterile. And low-stakes. There is nothing dangerous about this movie, and that’s the problem. From scene one, we get it. Christian Grey may have a red room, but he’s as bland as those ties he wears. We know he’s drawn to Anastasia Steele, the woman (she’s different and special to him — inexplicably, I might add, because she’s basically a paper doll of a person), from the first time they meet, and you never, for one second, worry that there’s something dangerous below the surface. Because he breaks all his rules for her. He “makes love” to her (barf). He sleeps with her. He introduces her to his parents. He treats her like a proper girlfriend instead of a kept woman. Yawn. Seen it. Lived it. Read the YA novel about it.
Even the people around her are like, “Oh, he’s randomly showing up and dressing you and telling you he can’t see you anymore, but then texting you and asking you out for coffee? Isn’t he the cutest, and not creepy at all?” Even Ana thinks this is all very normal and correct. And she falls in deep, EMOTIONAL love with him immediately because paper dolls are attracted to other paper dolls. This is the greatest love story of our time, people, at least that’s what we’re just supposed to believe and accept without any evidence to support it.
Also (SPOILER, like you care), is whipping her six times with a belt really the worst thing he can do to her? REALLY? THE WORST? In a world where bukkake and necrophilia exist, in a room full of whips and chains and assorted other devices, a couple of swats on the butt is pushing things to the nth degree? This is what we’re supposed to be afraid of, nervous about? Come on. If this guy’s a sadist, make him the sadiest sadist who ever did sade.
That’s where the tension should come from: If this paper doll guy truly cares about this paper doll girl, let’s see some push-pull between how he feels about her as a person and what he wants to do to her as a dominant. Can he sacrifice some of his needs to fulfill some of her needs? Can they meet in the sexual middle?
Maybe I should shut up now and write my own 50 Shades fanfic.
JOHN: I think you should. It would have to be better than this. I think you make very good points, and it seems like most spring from the character of Christian Grey. This is an ill-conceived character right from the start. Why does he fall so quickly for Ana? They have an interview, and almost no chemistry, but then he’s obsessed with her and stalking her. He stalks a lot. It’s creepy. It’s not romantic. Neither is contract negotiation. All he wants is for Ana to sign this Dominant-Submissive contract, so he can “fuck her into next week.” Stupid. Though, Ana asking him to strike out genital fisting and anal fisting from the contract is kinda funny.
I’m sure there’s more backstory we get about him in the future installments, but for now, we’re left with: crack prostitute mom and sex with a dominant cougar as a 15 year-old. Whatever, dude. Get over it. You’ve got a nice family now and you’re rich. Plus, he constantly contradicts himself. He says he never sleeps with anyone. Says it 3-4 times. But, then he sleeps with Ana, like 3-4 times. He says he never introduces girls to his family. But, then he introduces Ana to his adoptive mom (a wasted Marcia Gay Harden) first chance he gets. He plays brooding piano after coitus. And, he confesses his sordid backstory to Ana as she sleeps. He sucks. And, Dornan doesn’t know how to play him. How much better would this have been if Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman was the lead?
JULIE: This character definitely should’ve had more American Psycho, or at least the hint of possible American Psycho. There needed to be some question in Ana’s mind whether or not hopping into a helicopter with the dude who’s been stalking her for weeks is a good idea. Literally the only thing he has going for him is that he’s rich. That’s it. He’s kind of cute, but in a really milquetoast sort of way. And he’s a freaking stalker. Like an actual stalker. That’s not hot. That’s “maybe I need to get a restraining order and change my number” level creepy.
Anyway, I think we’ve said many things here. I hope that Dakota Johnson is given other chances after this series ends, because she’s truly very likable on screen (miss you, Ben & Kate!). I also think that everyone should see Kingsman: The Secret Service instead of this nonsense, if you enjoy seeing hot men on screen.
JOHN: Oh, for sure. Go see Kingsman. But, it’s not like they’re targeting the same audience. I guess I’m left trying to figure out the appeal of 50 Shades. Is it the inside peek into BDSM sub-culture? If so, it fails to deliver on that front. Just a lot of caressing with horse hair whips and tying up with rope. Oh, and spanking. Yawn. Is it the romance? The smut? It fails there too. This whole 50 Shades movement is lost on me. Why can’t there be a Whiplash movement, so Target can start selling drum kits and motivational books that avoid the 2 most harmful words in the English language, “good job.”
And, let’s talk about the ending. [SPOILER ALERT]. Ana ends up leaving Christian and gets in his elevator. He starts to approach her, and she says, “NO!” The end. They had the perfect opportunity to use one of the safe words, “Yellow” (meaning she’s coming close to her breaking point) or “Red” (which means stop). It would have been way more thematically cohesive for Ana to say one of those safe words. Apparently, the director wanted to do that, but EL James refused. I guess the lesson here is that EL James must be stopped at all costs.
JULIE: It’s amazing to me just how much power she had over this movie, to its detriment. They had a chance to make this film better than the source material (I get the feeling at least Sam Taylor-Johnson and Dakota Johnson were game). But because they had to kowtow to the author, it’s same shit, different medium.
As far as ratings go, on an Empire scale from Luscious Lyon’s ALS to Cookie Lyon’s everything, I give this film a Drip Drop Drip-Drippity-Drop minus.
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