Tolstoy famously wrote that while “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same can be said for really bad movies. There’s no precise formula for a film that’s must-see in spite of itself. Poor acting, apathetic writing, and a complete and utter lack of narrative cohesion can only get you so far. Fifty Shades Darker took these prerequisites for a half-star review and added its own secret ingredients (Erotic oils? Ben Wa Balls? Pornographic landscape shots of Puget Sound?). Two hours later, it was clear that, between the masquerade ball and the nipple clamps, Director James Foley had stumbled upon his own brand of bad movie magic.
Like Twilight, the YA series that writer E.L. James milked for BDSM inspiration, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy belongs in the 50% off romance bin. Both series fall back on genre tropes, and proudly flout the Bechdel test. The main difference, of course, is PG versus R-rated content. As befitting its Mormon auteur, Twilight lustily describes its adolescent and perma-adolescent characters’ wet lips and hard cheekbones. Graphic sex, like clear, concise prose or painless dialogue, has no place in the Twilight universe. Still, readers of all ages were quick to pick up on the charged power dynamics between Bella, a virginal high school student, and Edward, a vampiric control freak. For fan fiction writers like James, these characters were easily transposed into adult-world, giving us Anastasia, a virginal college student, and Christian, an older dominant who’s into kinky shit (not sucking blood, exactly, but exacting pain). Twilight and Fifty Shades both wind up in the same place (happily ever after/the state of Washington), but take vastly different routes along the way.
Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James both rely on will-they-or-won’t-they tension and love triangle drama. Twilight spices things up with supernatural battles, abstinence, and a vampire-human pregnancy. Fifty Shades of Grey really spices things up with mommy issues, spanking, and some serious bondage play. In their original, literary (?) iterations, both of these series were wildly popular and easily critiqued. Twilight, with its hundreds of pages of huge-fonted pining, seemed to promote romantic subservience, with a female protagonist who sacrificed her own life, over and over again, for her vampire boo. Even more concerning, Twilight often acted as a Trojan horse for its author’s religious values. Readers would be halfway through the doomed romance between a white girl and a deathly pale dude, only to stumble upon a bunch of chapters drenched in pro-life rhetoric. Yea, Twilight isn’t just about shirtless wolves—it’s also about an 18-year-old who would rather be murdered by the fetus she’s carrying than get an abortion. Similarly, Fifty Shades of Grey hides a whole bunch of problematic shit under its sex-positive facade. As any responsible kinskter will tell you, BDSM is all about enthusiastic consent. In contrast, Fifty Shades of Grey is about an objectively unhealthy relationship, in which a young woman feels pressured to agree to her new boyfriend’s lengthy list of sexual commands.
Still, it’s clear that Fifty Shades of Grey has become something much larger than its source material. While by no means an approved manual for dominant/submissive relationships, the erotic series has been credited with awakening average Americans to the joys of heterosexual handcuffing and light butt stuff. Fifty Shades was the catalyst for a bunch of extremely awkward dinner table conversations, and a much-needed reminder to turn off the Family Library function on your Kindle. It was the book that launched a thousand knowing glances on the subway. And it was the series that gave us Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker, two truly bad movies that deserve to be added to the pantheon of important, terrible films.
Much like reading Fifty Shades of Grey on a crowded 1 train, watching Fifty Shades Darker was an experience in and of itself. While my screening was mostly populated by media types, there were also a few lucky VIPs who must have won some sort of contest, wearing fancy masks in homage to the film’s masquerade ball. For 1 hour and 58 minutes, the reporters, contest winners and I reached a level of intimacy that rivaled Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan’s. We laughed together, and we cried—from laughing—together.
The movie opens on a flashback from Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) traumatic childhood, assuring the audience that this installment would indeed be darker. We find our romantic leads about where we left them. Post-breakup, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is putting on a brave face, and starting her job as a personal assistant to the fiction editor at Seattle Independent Publishing. Christian is joylessly going about his business as Seattle’s youngest, most charismatic billionaire, and pining after Ana. About ten minutes in, the two get back together. The film continues to advance at a comically brisk pace: Ana and Christian have sex, attend a charity ball together, have more sex, get Ana’s predatory boss fired, have more sex, face off against two of Christian’s more psychologically disturbed exes, move in together, defy death, and get engaged.
While the basic skeleton of Fifty Shades Darker is confusing and ridiculous, the devil is truly in the details. First, there’s the atrocious dialogue—for example, Christian tells his ex that, “You taught me how to fuck. Ana taught me how to love.” When Christian finally confesses to Ana that his mother was an addict, he’s inexplicably terse: “Crack. You can fill in the blanks.” Can she? Since this book is basically about two people who fight and fuck, it follows that adapting a realistic romantic relationship for the screen would be a bit of a stretch. Still, there’s no excuse for how Ana and Christian, two people who are engaged by the end of this film, seem to have absolutely nothing to talk about. When Ana responds to Christian’s heartfelt proposal by blurting out “Why?”, it’s the most believable dialogue yet (well, that and the time she asks him if he’s trying to put something in her butt). Aside from bad writing, it’s clear that Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan probably don’t like each other that much in real life. This mutual dislike explains the lack of passion between these characters, who often seem to be summoning the level of apathy usually reserved for actual pornography.
Other movie missteps are, fortunately, far more enjoyable than watching Johnson and Dornan hate-fuck. One particularly rewarding scene finds Anastasia filling in for her sacked boss at a senior editors’ meeting. At first, Steele appears to be out of her element—as well she should be, since she’s been working as a personal assistant for about a month. But naturally, one of the old dudes in the room turns to Ana, offering a big break in the form of this ridiculously vague question: “Ana, what do you think we should be publishing?” The meeting then descends into a truly asinine argument over the merits of publishing authors with online followings. Anastasia praises a manuscript that she previously described as a political thriller with “parallels” to Dante’s Inferno. Following this powerhouse performance, Steele is inexplicably promoted to acting fiction editor. As concerned as I am for the future of Seattle fiction, I’m more concerned for Hannah, a black woman in Ana’s department who seems like she should have been next in line for the editor gig. Black female characters are consistently getting screwed in this movie, and not in a good way. When one of Christian’s many enemies tries to take down his helicopter, his “second-in-command” Ros Bailey goes down with him.
At the end of the day, Christian Grey has a very good butt (thank you, James Foley/Jamie Dornan, for that truly extraneous workout scene), but isn’t a great boyfriend. In the lead-up to the film’s first sex scene, Christian transfers a bunch of money into Ana’s bank account against her will and reveals his plans to buy her company. In Christian Grey’s world, this is foreplay. On account of his abusive upbringing, Christian won’t let anyone touch his chest. This is all well and good, but doesn’t explain why he feels the need to make Ana sensually outline his off-limits area with red lipstick. You could’ve just said torso! Additionally, Christian has at least two unhinged exes: an older woman who tries to convince Ana to leave him, and an ex-sub who breaks into Ana’s apartment with a gun. If that wasn’t enough of a red flag, Christian is also an uncommunicative control freak who conflates love with sex, power, and fancy presents.
Speaking of fancy presents, Fifty Shades Darker is as much a consumerist wet dream as it is…an actual wet dream. Much like Grey’s Anatomy, this film makes use of all that Seattle has to offer; specifically, really nice apartments with tons of exposed brick. Watching Jamie Dornan steer a boat across the Puget Sound to the tune of a Zayn Malik-Taylor Swift duet might not be a traditional tourism ad, but it does the trick. Additionally, viewers can salivate over Ana’s closet of designer gowns, and that boulder of a diamond that Christian Grey calls an engagement ring.
Fifty Shades Darker is a great movie to catch in theaters if you simply must know if Rita Ora can act (she can’t). But in terms of Valentine’s Day plans, you could do better. It’s not that the film isn’t technically sexy—there’s fancy lingerie, dirty talk, and even a scene where Dakota Johnson gets fingered in an elevator. But since the movie just can’t seem to take itself seriously, the audience doesn’t either. Which is to say, if you try to make out with your date at Fifty Shades Darker, you’ll probably get laughed out of the theater.