My reservations with this premise ran deep from the first moment it ventured into my periphery. A good film, at least, might have made sense of the ambiguous nature of the situation. But this is a story arc that had no interest in being thoughtful about the issues it raises, and for the sake of making it to the end I eventually distanced myself from the hope of a meaning – if just to see whether anything beneath was worth observing. But a second film proved to be as shallow as its overreaching point; often characters would get into complicated dangers that were usually resolved in one or two scenes, without any linkage between them other than a sexual romp with restraints and blindfolds. To the director, the material played like an exhausting public foreplay leading to the intercourse. Much of that holds true in “Fifty Shades Freed,” the final chapter of this saga, but now my general frustration is replaced with indifference. This is a series that embodies the famous view of Oscar Brotman, Chicago’s famed movie exhibitor: “if nothing has happened at the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.”
There are events moving the leads from one point to the next, of course, but the screenplay by Niall Leonard treats them all with the same underlying scorn; he sees his audience not as perceptive individuals, but as sensation junkies who have shown up only to see bare skin and lustful choreography. The movie opens with the obligatory launch point: billionaire Christian Grey and his doting girlfriend Anastasia have wed in a lavish ceremony overseen by loving friends and relatives, and they run off to the islands for a honeymoon full of romance and hedonism. Occasionally their interactions are disrupted by obligatory arguments, such as one in which Christian chastises his wife for going topless on a public beach (the paparazzi may take photographs, he suggests). Then there is an ominous cellphone text that flashes on the screen, suggesting that he may have a hook-up scheduled on the side. The movie uses this briefly as an undercurrent of tension as the lovers navigate their way through the first few weeks of their married life, but it is never resolved; we have no clue from that point on whether Grey is a cheat, or whether the camera is just taking the insinuation deliberately out of context.
Moving on. The primary driving force of the film’s tension is a lack of trust that trickles under the surface of their storybook union, driven at times by encounters that perpetuate their alarms. Note, in one case, how Anastasia perceives an exchange between her husband and his beautiful female architect, who are discussing how to remodel a house he has just bought for her; her flirtatious demeanor could not be more obvious, and Anastasia’s response is as domineering as it is typical. But like all the film’s situations no further reference is made; it’s just a moment in time used to touch on the chilly discomfort that is destined to settle around them. Christian echoes this prospect, in his own way, by seeming offended by her independence. When she at first refuses to switch to her married name at her publishing firm and then later goes to have drinks with a friend against his wishes, it aggravates him to the point of… those ever-so-annoying silent treatments. And what is the ultimate punishment when she neglects to apologize or admit wrong-doing? He withholds sex, of course.
In the greater erotic dramas, the carnal act is not so much the reward as it is the emphasis of a shared chemistry. “Fifty Shades of Grey” uses it as a weapon – against its characters, common logic and the attention span of the very audience it seeks to arouse. Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are attractive enough, and perhaps even properly cast in these roles, but their personalities rarely rise beyond the façade of uncultivated sexual vessels; all their decisions, dialogue and build-ups could not be any more pedestrian if they had been improvised on the set of a porno. If that is as painfully obvious as it is unfortunate, consider the affect it has on the critical final climax: after being stalked and ambushed and threatened for two hours by her former boss – a predator with his own ulterior agenda – Anastasia inevitably must come to face him in a showdown concerning her sister-in-law underneath a highway overpass. But of course she tips off her husband in such a way in the prior scene that instantly flattens the potential for a more rousing exchange of tension. Were the Greys threatened at all in their pursuit of happiness, or were all these moments, ranging from his young abuse to her doubts in his honor, just elaborate ruses to propel their need to get off, or our perverse desire to watch?
In an earlier review I referenced a film called “Secretary,” about a woman with deep depression who finds emotional release in the company of a boss that functions as a sadomasochist. Though hardly involved or convoluted as a story, it was a movie that saw its sex not as a tool for arousal, but as the only tangible release for people who would otherwise harm themselves. It used the act for a psychological reason. To contrast what remains of that endeavor with what exists here is to sense the loss of a priority in the minds of current filmmakers. When it comes to sex, they have a grasp of the music notes but nothing of the conducting. I have attempted to see the “Fifty Shades” fad from a wide array of angles, using my own personal standards and even those of someone who might care less about a tangible foundation, and always I am left alien to this perplexing cause. It’s not a movie at all, but a sex toy with dialogue. Others, perhaps, might find it useful as the ultimate in character tests – if the person you see it with leaves the theater feeling any sense of enthusiasm, that might be a good signal to seek better company.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Thriller/Romances (US); 2018; Rated R; Running Time: 105 Minutes
Dakota Johnson: Anastasia Steele
Jamie Dornan: Christian Grey
Eric Johnson: Jack Hyde
Eloise Mumford: Kate Kavanagh
Rita Ora: Mia Grey
Luke Grimes: Elliot Grey
Produced by Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, E.L. James and Marcus Viscidi; Directed by James Foley; Written by Niall Leonard; based on the novel by E.L. James