Director: James Foley
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Now that Fifty Shades Freed is swift approaching, there's no way I could let my blog ignore the bridge between that and Fifty Shades of Grey for one second longer. Although I wrote a brief snippet in sorta-praise of that second film back in February 2017, it was during the brief time that I wasn't writing full reviews for current releases. What a fool I was! Please allow me to rectify that with this belated, beloved review of Fifty Shades Darker, a film I have owned on DVD for some months now, because I am nothing if not a lunatic.
It's all part of the reason I'm so sexually irresistible.
So, Fifty Shades Darker is - obviously - a continuation of the massively popular mommy-porn fanfic lit phenomenon. We join our heroine, who was called Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) by some parents whose story must be far more interesting than that of their daughter considering their decision to commit to that name, as we left her: broken up with handsome millionaire BDSM-obssessed boyfriend Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She immediately finds him back in her life, buying photos she modeled for so nobody else can look at her, forcing her to accept a gift of $24,000, giving her a laptop and phone then demanding she dream of him, and getting in the face of her sexy new boss at the book publishing agency, Jack (Eric Johnson) before literally just buying the company so he can be in charge of her career. You know, like good boyfriends do.
This is all literally in the first twenty minutes of a movie that inexplicably brushes the two hour mark.
Anyway guess what, they end up back together, although they struggle with the terms and boundaries of their new commitment. Anastasia wants a vanilla, normal relationship, but the audience demands some kinky-ass sex, so she wavers back and forth in her desires. Many road blocks to their relationship arrive, but the most important are the manipulative presence of his former sexual abuser Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger) and the violent obsession of a former sub named Leila (Bella Heathcoate). Thus must Anastasia quite literally grapple with Christian's past, if she truly means to be with him.
And I don't know why she wouldn't. Just look at how pale and disinterested he is. Scrumptious.
One thing I like about Fifty Shades Darker is that it does not give a SH*T if you don't remember the first one. I certainly don't remember it nor do I wish to, but this movie just throws you right on into the deep end anyway. And why not? It's not like any of these characters or plot lines really matter.
And that's exactly why Darker is a marked improvement on the original. The franchise has finally started to lean into the fact that all it ever was and is supposed to be is unfettered trashiness. Don't come to these movies looking for plot or dynamic character arcs. Don't come to them for a reflection of realistic relationships or sexual mores (seriously, please don't do that). Come here for an exercise in melodramatic froth interspersed with some of the best-worst fake BDSM designed to appeal to Wisconsin housewives who want to be titillated but only just a little.
Fifty Shades Darker still doesn't quite fulfill the lurid, absurd promise that the books provide, but it's substantially closer to achieving that atmosphere, to the point that it ends up being a marginally enjoyable trash odyssey into heterosexual camp.
And only a straight person could have picked out this outfit.
But you know me. I'll take a bad-good movie over a bad-boring one any day, and though Darker still has its fair share of tedious moments, there is plenty for a bad movie lover to feast upon, starting with the fact that every huge plot twist is cleared up in about two minutes of screen time, including HERE BE SPOILERS a major helicopter crash that comes out of literally nowhere and sees Christian casually walk back into his apartment with hardly a scratch in less time than it takes for them to remove each other's clothes. END SPOILERS The abortive drama is deliciously inane, and just keeps on lobbing softballs toward our heroes from out of left field.
Of course, it's not like we expected a script that is forced to include the straight-from-the-source lines "Laters, baby" and "you distract me with your kinky f*ckery" to be particularly on the ball about its dramatic developments. It's not great, but frankly it's fascinating, if only as an exercise in watching the bizarre sublimated desires of one fanfiction author playing out ten feet high with a fifty million dollar budget.
The filmmaking also seems to have endeavored to fail in such a thorough way that it fills in all the gaps where the script rises to the level of "competent." This movie is chock full of unmotivated cuts to exteriors in the middle of scenes, props that teleport into people's hands, and blocking that has a woman bring Ana a mug of tea which she promptly sets a flat eight feet away from her.
And may the movie gods bless the production designer who had the brilliant idea to put an inexplicable Chronicles of Riddick poster in Christian's childhood bedroom, an omnipresent touch during one particular sex scene that is grandly perplexing and amusing.
But, as always, there's at least one thing that propels this film from the depths of the blandly smutty muck, and that is Dakota Johnson. She isn't given a particular showcase like the contract scene in the previous film, but she's still pretty genuinely great in the role, instilling Anastasia with a sharp sense of humor that is in no way present on the page. She also strikes a terrific balance between the character's requisite shy, awkward side (the one that makes her relatable to the audience and also desirable to Christian's kinky f*ckery), and her burgeoning confidence. She's frankly exquisite in an early interaction with her new boss, where after a fumbled initial interaction, she settles into her skin when she starts to focus on work, her passion cutting the tension and allowing her to focus.
Of course, not even Meryl Streep could have handled some of the lines thrown her way, and she does stumble occasionally, especially when she must pretend to have any sort of chemistry with Jamie Dornan (in spite of their much-publicized mutual contempt). But Johnson continues to be the sparkling gem of this franchise, redeeming the most awful lows with surprising charm and magnetism.
And I've made it this far without really talking about the sex, but who am I kidding? It's what people are here for, and it is... fine. Christian literally never takes his jeans off, which is frankly disturbing, but they up the ante on the kinkiness to a certain, satisfying degree. Of course, it's not hard to hit a higher tier than the first film, which literally just shows some spanking and calls it a day. And any couples who are actually into BDSM will find this film so vanilla they'll get brain freeze. But still, there's not many Hollywood big budget feature films that have scenes which specifically and explicitly revolve around ben wa balls, so that's something at least.
I certainly wouldn't recommend this film to the discerning viewer, but if you're looking for a little fun with one author's unfiltered id, it's as close to a slam dunk as this franchise has gotten. I have my fingers crossed that Fifty Shades Freed doubles down on no-holds-barred sex and extravagantly idiotic plotting, and if it accomplishes that, it might just be a hands down camp classic.
TL;DR: Fifty Shades Darker improves on the original film by not taking itself quite as seriously, although it's still just as drama-free and pointless.
Word Count: 1332
Reviews In This Series
Fifty Shades of Grey (Taylor-Johnson, 2015)
Fifty Shades Darker (Foley, 2017)
Fifty Shades Freed (Foley, 2018)