starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jennifer Ehle
screenplay by Kelly Marcel, based on the novel by E.L. James
directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
by Walter Chaw In an age of post-satire, where Sarah Palin has a cognitive episode on every channel and prints the take, where it's actually become impossible to mock something that's constantly in the process of taking itself down, enter E. L. James's radioactively-popular "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, which creeps under the low bar set by key inspiration Stephenie Meyer. It all sets the stage of course for Idiocracy's most popular movie in the land being a continuous loop of an ass, sometimes farting. That's what makes the first hour of Sam Taylor-Johnson's film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey actually something like a revelation. She, along with screenwriter Kelly Marcel, has somehow managed to turn the excrescent source material--excrescent not for its eroticism (I like me a good Henry Miller any day of the week), but for its illiteracy--into a satire of that section in the used bookstore where you can buy a grocery-bagful for a $1.00, trade-ins welcome. The picture does the impossible: It makes fun of something so stupid and anti-lovely it was already making fun of itself, and for at least that first hour, I understood completely the camp/communal value of Fifty Shades of Grey. And then there's another hour.
Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a virgin. That's important, because she's saved herself, it seems, for a narcissistic asshole. Said asshole is Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who takes her maidenhood and then asks her to sign a Master/Servant contract, the better to introduce terms like "butt plug" and "anal fisting" into the world's most expensive Cinemax-cum-Lifetime softcore empowerment flick. Later, in a nod to The Thomas Crown Affair, I bet (the remake, I mean), Grey/Steele go for a flight in a glider that looks like a giant sperm with wings. It's that kind of movie. It's also the kind of movie where, in a highlight, Christian introduces Ana to his "playroom," points to a medieval thing, and helpfully informs: "That's called a flogger". The first hour is self-aware and funny in that way. It knows it's preposterous and stereotyped into ossification and makes sport of that without being a jerk about it. Frankly, I would love to see Taylor-Johnson and Marcel tackle an original project together. They seem to have something to say and a light way of saying it.
Fifty Shades of Grey, alas, isn't an original project. In fact, it's almost as large a property as the Marvel Universe, and as such there are requirements of it, hence a second half that has Ana wrestling (not literally) with the idea of signing over her free will to Christian to become his legally-bound "Submissive." She wants to know why they can't just cuddle like a normal couple, and Christian, already halfway up that cross, declares that he's the product of sexual abuse and the child of a dead crack-whore. His transition from Submissive to Dominant isn't well-explained, but an audience of women who would like to fix Mr. Perfect de Sade only swoon at the opportunity to Dr. Phil him into domesticity. Taylor-Johnson and Marcel wisely jettison most of James's unspeakable dialogue. Johnson, an interesting foil at first, becomes a quivering Mary Wollstonecraft, protesting her fiery independence between explosive orgasms during getting-spanked sessions and flying around on helicopters. It's all been done before and better, natch. (9½ Weeks is still my favourite of these things.) But for a while, Fifty Shades of Grey acts like one of its fans who reads it, knows what she's reading, and likes it anyway--the girl version of a Jean Claude Van Damme flick. By the end, it's just repetitive and creepy and suddenly hilarious; and not in the intentional way. I fully expected to hate Fifty Shades of Grey. Call it baby steps that I didn't.