There is a line towards the latter part of Fifty Shades of Grey, the cinema adaptation of E.L. James’s ludicrously pseudo-erotic BDSM-themed novel, which perfectly encapsulates the film. Our brooding, filthy rich-and-can-wear-the-fuck-out-of-a-suit antihero, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan)—picture Bruce Wayne with different leather gear and kinkier gadgetry—is mired in a protracted contract negotiation that makes LeBron James’s “The Decision” look downright tasteful by comparison.
You see, Mr. Grey is a dom—as in he has a red chamber called the “playroom” filled with bondage equipment that he uses to spank and whip the crap out of women, getting off in the process—and his 16th sub, a wide-eyed grad student who must hate her parents for naming her Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), refuses to bend and sign his dom-sub contract, effectively postponing her sex slavery. First, she’s removed several clauses from the literature, including fisting, suspension, and genital clamps. Then, after letting this therapist’s dream bang her missionary (goodbye, virginity!), on a piano, doggy style (while tied up) in bed, and getting her tushy spanked a few times, she goes ahead and falls in love with the bastard, which screws with his already screwed-up head and forces him to feel feelings.
But she still won’t sign on the dotted line, which rattles his cage. Ms. Steele confronts her sexual sensei and wonders why they can’t just sex each other like normal people, and why he can’t let go of the whole dom-sub thing. He shoots her a tormented glance and blurts out, “Because I’m fifty shades of fucked up.”
And there you have it, folks.Directed with restraint by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), written by Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), and adapted from the bestselling series of novels that has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, Fifty Shades of Grey is pure, unadulterated camp—as it should be. Those coming into this silver screen tourist trap anticipating a complex psychosexual odyssey on a par with Last Tango in Paris need to adjust their expectations big-time. This is silly, fun camp. And not high-camp that crosses over into actual art, a la The Talented Mr. Ripley, but the kind of camp that’s best enjoyed while hunkered down on the couch emptying a cheap bottle of sauvignon blanc. The critics will have their claws out for this one, but in time, it will be appreciated for the spruced-up trash that it is.
The plot is simple enough. Virginal English lit student Anastasia Steele is dispatched by her randy roommate to interview Christian Grey, mysterious billionaire (as if such a thing exists nowadays). She’s so young in the ways of the world that she’s packing a flip phone and, brimming with excitement, pulls a Carrie Bradshaw-at-Dior, tripping and falling into his office. Immediately, Christian is drawn to Anastasia’s naïveté, and speaks exclusively in double entendres.
“Oh, I exercise control in all things, Ms. Steele,” he says. “I enjoy various physical pursuits.” But he dabbles in Third World charities, so she sees what is, in Swingers parlance, “the guy-behind-the-guy.”
Their subsequent meet-ups are right on the nose. He bumps into her at the hardware store that she works at and purchases cable wire, masking tape, and rope. This encounter sets off a pas de deux involving mild teasing and a surfeit of sexual innuendo, with Christian feeding her lines like, “If you were mine you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week”; “I would like to fuck you into the middle of next week”; and my personal favorite, following Anastasia’s query about when they’ll make love: “I don’t ‘make love.’ I fuck. Hard.” Ha.
She loses her virginity to him, and he breaks his cardinal rule by sharing his bed with a woman. He takes her on trips through his native Seattle (and beyond) in his helicopter, sports car, and plane. She’s not really down with the whole “S&M” thing, but soon relents and allows him to tie her up, tease her nipples Do the Right Thing-style with ice cubes, go down on her, and spank her a bit.
They also have sex, and plenty of it.
About 20 minutes of the 125-minute film is dedicated to these sex scenes, which are mildly titillating in their impressionistic way, offering plenty of breasts and a flash of the antihero’s pubes—but a decided lack of peen. Oozing ballads from the likes of Beyoncé and The Weeknd complement the melodramatic sex and light spanking. And, despite a noticeable lack of chemistry on their press tour for the film, the Irish model Dornan and Don Johnson/Melanie Griffith progeny Johnson do mesh well on the big screen. In fact, it’s their unwavering commitment to these absurd characters that elevates the creatively limited proceedings.
There are a few cheap shots in the film, like the much-ballyhooed presence of pop singer Rita Ora, who occupies the screen for a grand total of five seconds and utters one line in French, or its cliffhanger of an ending. But overall, Fifty Shades of Grey delivers on the novel’s promise of a semi-erotic, chuckle-worthy, and amusing ride. These days, that ain't so bad.