Sam Taylor-Johnson and E.L James‘ Fifty Shades of Grey (Universal, 2.13), which I saw last night at the Arclight in a theatre that was attended by a few media types but mostly by people you wouldn’t want to have dinner with if given a choice, is a sterile experience, to put it mildly. It’s faintly amusing and even titillating during the first hour, but it eventually narcotizes and then freezes your soul. It offers a few mildly arousing, tastefully shot sex scenes (ice cubes, lashes, blindfolds), but it lives inside its own restricted, barren, super-regulated realm. There’s no “life” in its veins. Watching it is like visiting an overly policed bondage & discipline museum with uniformed guards stationed every 15 feet…no heart, no blood, no humanity, no jazz, no off-moments. It’s a cold, ritualized girl movie about fantasy sex with a well-mannered, hot-bod billionaire who rams like a stallion and gives lots of oral.
Henry Miller would definitely not approve. He would say “perversion, okay, but where’s the heart? You need to put a little heart into sex or what’s the point?” I’ll tell you what the point is. The point is that the sense of eros coveted by and written about by Miller 80 years ago is a thing of the distant past, and that we now live in an age of Seriously Perverse Franchises, which are a manifestation of what I would call the New Sterility coupled with the New Cluelessness on the part of young, anxious, under-educated women.
If you come away delighted with Fifty Shades of Grey then you are definitely on the clueless side of the equation, but don’t let me stop you. This movie is critic-proof. The none-too-brights are going to see this thing in droves, and then they’re going to talk things out at a nearby bar and drink wine and start squealing with laughter after the second glass. And guys like me are going to look in their direction and give them the stink-eye.
A 40ish lady I came with was groaning from the get-go and walked out at the one-hour mark, but I stuck it out and didn’t feel all that bored during the first half. But after that second half kicks in….hoowhee. And then it ends on a note of coy calculation …stopping dead on a note of cliffhanger hurt…cut to black…like the final episode of the second-to-last season of Dallas, etc.
Everyone knows that Fifty Shades, set in Seattle, is about a kinky, bucks-up bondage-and-discipline relationship between the naive but quietly astute Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson), a literature student, and the super-loaded Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Grey, who is totally congested and emotionally blocked up the yin-yang, is not into relationships and lovemaking and all that tender-schmender stuff — he’s a dominant who’s interested in Steele if she wants to be a submissive. She gets into it soon enough, and then it’s off the races. Johnson is portraying a tedious, mousey character who nonetheless has actual feelings and morals and knows herself. Which is more than you can say for Grey. And poor Dornan…God! The guy was told by Taylor-Johnson to speak and behave like a well-mannered cyborg, and he does a reasonably good job of this but your heart goes out.
The first hour of Fifty Shades is mildly intriguing in a professionally shot, second-tier cable channel sort of way, but it gradually degrades into lifeless and antiseptic sexually-enlivened wealth porn. Especially during the second hour. Especially by way of production design.
With the exception of a single scene inside a hardware store that Anastasia works in, the whole thing is set in various chilly, super-deluxe, corporate-type environments without any sense of history or organic realism…utter sterility. The damn thing has been wealth-porned and production-designed to death with no street-level, catch-as-catch-can flavoring of any kind. It’s like a weekend in Las Vegas. Real life is not allowed, and it starts to feel pretty awful after a while.
I was hoping to see anything unruly or banal or irritating…a cop car pulling somebody over, an ugly billboard, construction guys unloading cement, squealing girls laughing in a bar, a fat guy gorging himself at a fast-food joint, a homeless derelict, drunk kids coming out of a tavern…anything. But the film is completely consumed by sterility and the kind of designs and atmospheres that only the super-wealthy live within and which have no soul. Everything in Fifty Shades looks like it was built/constructed within the last five or ten years. There’s nothing made of wood in the entire damn film. It’s a film imagined and shot by money whores.
For me the big oh-my-God is when Anastasia flies to see her mother in Savannah, a city of fascinating history and ghosts and cemeteries and hanging moss…a town that screams 19th Century. And then Christian follows her there, and during the entire Savannah sequence we don’t see a single cobblestoned street, a single gas lamp, a single old mansion, a single piece of hanging moss….nothing that says “Savannah” and everything that says cool, sterile, antiseptic wealth porn and guys who want their submissives to behave and whimper so they can gently whip them and blindfold them as they see to their primal urges.
Is the super-chilly, anti-organic, super-bloodless atmosphere in this film, which is abundant and relentless and immaculate, meant to (a) inspire mere envy among the clueless women who’ve read the books and will catch it this weekend or (b) is the wall-to-wall soullessness actually intended as a withering criticism of wealth-porn lifestyles and the people who yearn to live in this kind of environment? Not the latter, I’m presuming, but you have to ask.