Tepid, timid, turgid, tedious, and tame, if barely staying off the track of terrible, Fifty Shades of Grey is a monochromatic misfire, a syrupy softcore melodrama, a Harlequin Romance with pulleys. Chaste and clumsy, drab and dull, silly and sanctimonious, limp and ludicrous, it’s a Twilight ripoff that’s almost inferior to its already inferior inspiration.
Anastasia “Ana” Steele is a 21-year-old English literature undergraduate at Washington State University’s satellite campus near Vancouver. When her roommate, Kate Kavanagh, becomes ill and is unable to interview wealthy 27-year-old publishing mogul Christian Grey at his company headquarters in Seattle for the college newspaper, Ana agrees to go in her place. Ana’s instantly intimidated; Christian’s immediately intrigued, showering her with lavish gifts, asking for a non-disclosure agreement, and pushing her to pursue a lifestyle of radical sexual experimentation, with him as the tour guide.
There are more accurate ways to describe the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey: A wimpy, wounded billionaire/dominant with a cleanliness fetish and no friends stalks a passive-aggressive virgin with helicopter rides and sports cars. A charm-free hero with control issues and a passive, fretful heroine have simpering and vanilla pretend-sex. The point’s the same: if searching for erotic cinema, choose Last Tango in Paris, choose That Obscure Object of Desire, choose 9 1/2 Weeks, choose sex, lies and videotape, choose Crash or Secretary or Blue Is the Warmest Color. Avoid Fifty Shades of Grey.
As clinical as a classroom lecture and as sleek as a Calvin Klein commercial, Fifty Shades of Grey has at least one more redeeming quality. As Ana, the coy, likeable Dakota Johnson (The Social Network, 21 Jump Street) summons warmth and sweetness, traversing Ana’s zigzagging with reasonable aplomb. Yet the dreary Jamie Dornan has no ability to communicate deep, unimaginable pain. He’s more self-serious than self-loathing. Grey is a cutout character with an actor who refuses to transcend the material.
Fifty Shades of Grey needed to strengthen the sexual moments and submit to its “mommy porn” reputation. Instead, it played it safe. If not exactly embarrassed by its subject matter, director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) and writer Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) are extremely wary of plunging into it. Where Fifty Shades of Grey should be fun and frisky, it’s sterile and sanitized. Creating a genteel R-rated film from an X-rated book is like adapting a musical without the songs.
Taylor-Johnson may have tried: anyone would struggle to make EL James’ BDSM potboiler into a spanking cinematic silk purse. Marcel certainly didn’t: she lifts much of the book’s lukewarm, laughably rudimentary dialogue verbatim, and there’s nothing as agonizingly awkward as James’ tin-eared prose. The result is startling: in a narrative about getting out – far out – of one’s comfort zone and a film criticized for glamorizing domestic abuse, Fifty Shades of Grey is monumentally boring. It’s a love story without passion, a bondage movie without perversion.
Like some mutant spawn of The Bachelor, Fifty Shades of Grey is bland, flaccid, willfully wrongheaded about sex, and crippled by its own construction. Designed neither to menace nor to offend but to cosset the fatigued imagination, destined to inspire more head-shaking than lip-biting, it has about as much steam as a day-old cup of chamomile. It’s a desultory dud that swaps out the novel’s prolonged and explicit intercourse for flat, vapid inserts, padded out by a perplexing relationship between a straw man and blow up maiden.
Like Ana, you’ll roll your eyes many times over the course of Fifty Shades of Grey, but there’s no need to step into the playroom: enduring the running time is punishment enough. It’s worse than fifty shades of blah and better than fifty shades of dreck. And let’s be honest: in today’s day and age, stealing 120 minutes of an audience’s time in exchange for fifty shades of beige – a guileless, sexless, and artless retread of bad source material – isn’t merely a crime, it’s a sin.