|Image courtesy of Focus Features.|
For those unfamiliar with the source material, "Fifty Shades" follows the exploits of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a young woman who is allegedly in college - and I say allegedly due to the fact that we never see her do much more than spend time behind the counter at a hardware store where she works or roll around in the sack with the film's male lead, more on him in a minute - and apparently a sexual novice.
As a favor for her roommate, she agrees to interview Christian Grey, a 27-year-old billionaire who has become rich doing, well, something lucrative, although we are never quite told what labors built his empire. Occasionally, he refers to "work," whatever that is.
Anastasia's interview for the school newspaper and is set to run days before Grey will be the commencement speaker at its graduation. Let me start by saying - this interview is probably the most improbable and absurd one ever conducted by two people who inhabit this planet. I worked nearly 10 years as a journalist, but I'd be willing to bet that some random person pulled out of Bellevue could have done a better job of carrying out the interview, while the person being interviewed gives the most cryptic answers this side of the "Book of Soyga."
For some unexplainable reason, Grey finds himself compelled by Anastasia and she by him. The rest of the film follows their tete a tetes as he attempts to convince her to sign a contract to become the submissive to his dominant in a relationship that favors whips and riding crops over flowers and spooning.
So, here's the good news: "Fifty Shades of Grey" looks pretty good. The film has a visually gloomy style - but hell, it's set in Seattle, so that works for it. Also, Johnson manages to breathe some life into her character, despite the prevalent inconsistencies.
One of the biggest problems in the film is that it's difficult to truly read Christian and Anastasia, not because they're mysterious but due to the fact that their motivations are muddled. Christian claims to have previously had 16 women stay at his home and be his submissive and that he never takes them out on dates, sleeps in the same bed, etc. And yet, he spends much of the film doing all these things.
As for Anastasia, her mini-crises (a last minute trip to visit her mother, the back and forth involved in her deciding whether to sign Grey's contract) seem as if they exist to move the plot forward, rather than to give her character any sort of cohesion. After already having been spanked, chained up and flogged, Ana says she wants for Christian to, essentially, inflict on her his worst. He does, which drives her away from him and out of his apartment, setting up the inevitable sequel to come. The thing is, the "punishment" he inflicts appears to be just slightly worse than what he typically does during their sessions.
This first cinematic installment based on E.L. James's novels isn't as terrible as it could have been. In fact, there's a certain amount of workmanship on display here, even if the story and characters left me at a disconnect. Unfortunately, for a movie about kink, "Fifty Shades" eventually becomes a bit rote and the endless repetition of spankings, whippings and R-rated interpretations of the novel's NC-17 material gets to be a bit of a chore.