Whip Smart : A Review of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Fifty Shades of Grey

Call me crazy, but Fifty Shades of Grey is better than five of this year’s Best Picture nominees. Or at the very least, much more interesting. From what I understand, the massively popular books -written by E.L. James- on which the movie is based are little more than literary garbage. Based on the very little I have read of them, and the hints I get from the worst parts of this movie, I have all reason to believe this statement to be correct. However, the fact that this movie is based on trash, doesn’t mean that it is trash too. I mean, it might be trashy, but it’s not trash. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has inadvertently turned a pornographic best-seller into a deconstruction of Hollywood romance. It’s one of the most impressive post-modern adaptation jobs I have ever seen, one that turns Fifty Shades of Grey into a parody of itself.

In the days before the release of the movie, some of my Facebook friend started sharing articles that criticized James’s books for glorifying sexual abuse in its portrayal of the relationship between virginal Anastasia Steele and mysterious billionaire Christian Grey. Like I wrote above, I am not the right person to answer whether or not this statement is correct when referring to the Fifty Shades books, but I will be more than willing to get on my soap box and declare that Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie, is anything but that. It engages directly with the notion that real life is not like romance novels or Hollywood movies. It is, ultimately, a story about two people with different ideas about what sex should be like trying to make a relationship work. It is a movie that revolves around a character signing a sex contract. It’s a game of power. It is the closest thing mainstream American cinema has created to a classic screwball comedy in at least the past decade.

Along with Taylor-Johnson, we should praise screenwriter Kelly Marcel, who has the decency to get rid of most of James’s disastrous prose, as well as some of the book’s most questionable decisions (especially regarding the ending). Also worthy of as much praise as can be given to a single person is actress Dakota Johnson, who is absolutely fantastic as Anastasia Steele. I can’t say I’m surprised, since I was familiar with Johnson’s comic talents from watching the quickly cancelled sitcom Ben and KateStill, the genius of Johnson’s performance relies on how much personality she can inject into a character that started as a copy of Bella Swan from the Twilight books, which is to say a bland copy of an already bland character. Not only does she turn every line into comedic gold, but she plays Anastasia as one of us. A regular person from the twenty-first century who acknowledges the fact that a man like Christian Grey does not belong anywhere but in the pages of a romance novel.

Jamie Dornan plays Grey, and there is very little the man can do to not suck. Sadly, he can’t be as self-reflective a character as Anastasia. He is the fantastical creature, and must act like such. Still, his bad acting, in a way, becomes part of the movie’s meta-text. The movie’s big conflict arises when we discover that this perfect bachelor has a dark secret. He is really into BDSM, but only when he is the one inflicting the pain. Anastasia is a virgin, because of course she is, and is not really into this kind of kink. That’s when the negotiation starts. Grey is a savvy businessman, so he knows he shouldn’t start whipping Anastasia around if she doesn’t sign a contract first. He does the kind of things that are only romantic in fiction but would seem creepy in real life to get Anastasia to sign herself into submission, but he seems to have met his match in this dorky girl.

Anastasia is initially seduced by how hot and rich Christian is, and later, by how awesome he makes her feel while having sex. The best of the movie’s sex scenes takes place in Christian’s red-room (which is the leather-covered Batcave in which he keeps his sex toys). It features Christian gently whipping Anastasia’s body, and it is set to a remixed version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”. Anastasia is having a blast. Her enjoyment of the sex is essential to the movie’s success, and something that we rarely see in mainstream movies, in which women are rarely allowed to crack a joke, much less have an orgasm. It’s important because it’s in the last part of the movie, when Anastasia doesn’t enjoy the sex anymore, and shit starts to go down, that we get the movie’s biggest triumph: an ending that many have discarded as sequel build-up, but I regard as the movie’s stroke of genius.

This is when I must admit that there is one big flaw about Fifty Shades of Grey, and it’s the build-up into the last sex sequence, which makes very little sense as far as character is concerned. The reason why Anastasia would do what she does is beyond me. Neither does it help that this part of the movie relies quite a bit on Christian Grey’s character backstory, which includes childhood abuse and a crack-head mother. It’s deeply stupid, as evidenced by the fact that the movie doesn’t manage to deliver the line “I’m fifty shades of fucked up!” with the winking cleverness that it does so many other corny moments. It’s a particularly rough patch of movie, but considering the weakness of the source material, it’s kind of miraculous that this is the only part of the movie that I found to be truly bad. It’s also helpful that the movie’s final moments more than make up for it.

Light spoilers for Fifty Shades of Grey, but at the end of the movie, the tables are turned, and despite being a billionaire with the ability to stalk her twenty-four seven, Christian Grey has been -pardon the pun- pussy whipped by bland Anastasia Steele. The movie ends, and she’s the one in charge. If all of this makes the movie sound like The Duke of Burgundys little cousin, it’s because it is. I mean, Burgundy is a much deeper exploration of the power dynamics of a relationship, but Fifty Shades is a more than worthy mainstream alternative. I do understand that the thing I like the most about the movie will more than surely be shred to pieces by the inevitable sequels, but taken in a vacuum as just one movie, Fifty Shades of Grey makes for a rather fascinating exploration of modern relationships in relation to the fantasies in our heads.

For the most part, Fifty Shades of Grey has been torn apart by critics. I feel like most people have been blinded by the horrible reputation of the material, or maybe by their own knowledge of where James’s book lead after this first chapter. Might we also have been blinded by the fact that this is a franchise made out of middlebrow porn and designed to appeal to women? It’s a pity, because this movie is much more fun and clever than you’d expect. It deserves far more than it’s gotten so far.

Grade: 8 out of 10

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