Directed by James Foley (2017)
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals
with your studious incursions toward the pomposity of ants,
nor you, experimental theatre in which Emotive Fruition
is wedding Poetic Insight perpetually, nor you,
promenading Grand Opera, obvious as an ear (though you
are close to my heart), but you, Motion Picture Industry,
it's you I love!
-Frank O'Hara, "To the Film Industry in Crisis" (1955)
Yes, it's you movies, and you, Hollywood, whom I adore. Even though you continuously baffle me with your sequels and your remakes and your endless, convoluted universes. And your "programming for women," which is even more confusing, with all the Nicholas Sparks adaptations and tepid Hallmark Channel romances and rabid, insatiable This Is Us fandom (seriously, if you know what's good for you, DO NOT utter a single word to me about how much you love that show because I just. Don't. Care. I like Mandy Moore, though.)
And in Hollywood's recent quest to lure women to the multiplex, because yes, women like to go to the movies too, we have the Fifty Shades trilogy. Do those identifying as women confine themselves only to watching rom coms (How to Be Single, Bridget Jones's Baby) or women behaving badly (Bad Moms, The Boss, Girls Trip) or swoony weepies (The Choice, Me Before You)? Is that really all there is? No. I don't believe that for a cottdamn second.
Which is why Fifty Shades of Grey, and it's second installment, Fifty Shades Darker, are so frustrating. We all know the runaway hit books featuring a sub/dom S&M relationship (not really) that turns romantic; we all know said hit books are based off wildly popular Twilight fanfiction; we all know author E.L. James is probably lounging on stacks of cash, leather, and more cash in her London pied-à-terre as you read this. Apparently the stories are sexy and Get It, Girl empowering and all those things we're told we should want, usually by men marketing this kind of shit, but maybe we don't. Maybe we want something real.
Fifty Shades Darker does not feel real to me. I mean, duh, it's a fantasy! I'll toast E.L. James on this one point - she's created a world based on someone else's fictional world that some of us wouldn't mind inhabiting for a little while. But it's such a basic fantasy - in this day and age, shouldn't we all demand more?
In the first film, fresh off her college graduation, meek Anastasia Steele somehow finds herself in the same airspace as young, cute, billionaire Christian Grey, who also happens to be into dominating women who physically resemble his crack-addicted mother so he whisks her into his world of sleek penthouses, helicopter rides, fancy parties, and red rooms of pain and whips and blindfolds. And, inexplicably, Ana begins to blossom before Christian's very eyes, like in that Shania Twain song Man! I Feel Like a Woman! but our pure, sweet Ana, she doesn't really want to be submissive, she just wants to love! And the person she has decided to love is poor, emotionally and physically battered Richie Rich Christian. And even though he fights his love for her, he JUST CAN'T HELP HIMSELF YOU GUYS, BECAUSE THEIR LOVE IS THAT STRONG (see Shania Twain songs From this Moment On, Forever and For Always). But they break up at the end of the first film because he's just so totally damaged (see Shania's It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing). And then by the beginning of Fifty Shades Darker, the two find themselves all sad and mopey, Christian channeling Shania with his I'm Gonna Getcha Good vibes. And he does. Get her good. Once he changes. Or tries to, anyway.
Which is pretty much the struggle Ana and Christian unpack in the latest installment. How to navigate a real relationship that's not an S&M business contract. This time around Ana sings Shania's I Ain't No Quitter while pushing him on nearly every motherfluffing thing (Christian, she doesn't want you wiring money into her bank account or ordering dinner for her or picking out her clothes or telling her she can't go on business trips with her creeptastic boss - I mean come on, that shit will not fly!) Oh and there's a lot of sex. Sexy sex sex sex. Sex that is supposed to be taboo and naughty and Not Your Average Vanilla Sex. But is it really...sexy? And risqué? Is it? Last night, watching with friends, I referred to Fifty Shades Darker as Not Another Sex Scene. One of my friends called it Fifty Shades of Missionary, because the majority of the bedroom & red room scenes culminate in that position (which, please, there's no way she's getting that excited each time on her back). And no, just because he goes down on her twice does not liken their bedroom antics to 'kinky fuckery,' which is an actual quote from the film. Hey, Hollywood - you are not fooling us. This is the 90's. I mean 2017. We are on to you.
Putting the *supposedly* intense sexual relationship aside for a moment, I get why Fifty Shades is so attractive to the masses. It's not necessarily about the money. It's not that he's supposed to be so handsome, or so powerful, or so untouchable (though that has something to do with it, sure). It's that he's broken. And only she can save him. In a relationship, that's a very dangerous place to be, a very dangerous way of thinking (see Shania's Don't Be Stupid). It sounds romantic on paper and on film, but out of all the people I know who thought they could at one point or another be their partner's romantic, spiritual, and everlasting salvation, I've only heard of it actually working once. Again, Fifty Shades is a fucking fantasy. I get it.
Technically, the film is perfectly adequate - cinematography is sleek, directing is standard, the leads, played by Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, are game at doing the best they can with what they're given. Dakota especially has a knack for giving good line, considering her dialogue is as inane as "There's like...so much of my face in here," and "They're so...large." With her baby doll bangs and body that can rock a bias-cut satin gown without a lick of Spanx to save her soul, she's a great mix of intellect, humor, and beauty, fitting the role so well.
The film, however, is not without its many mysteries. The plot veers between romance-fantasy (Christian buying Ana gowns and a laptop and finally, a real ass phone unlike the flip phone she got in the last one) to comedy (the two grocery shopping together...bwahahaha) to The Ring-esque horror (really, a gaunt, creepy girl with long dark hair keeps popping up, stalking Ana and Christian) to an episode of The Young and the Restless (Ana throwing a drink in the Almighty Kim Basinger's face) to an After Dark Cinemax movie (ahem, all that glossy vanilla sexy time), to ultra dramatic Lifetime movie (helicopter crashes! Older ex-girlfriends with evil vendettas! Jealous bosses committing multiple HR violations and attempting sexual assault!). Phew. That's a lot of mess to go through in two hours. At the end I was relieved to put it all behind me. But Ana! She had to live it. How much more can this girl take? And despite every single indignation, every life-threatening moment at gun-point, Ana still picks Christian (just like in Shania Twain's You're Still the One).
Then there are the downright ridiculous aspects of Fifty Shades Darker...like the fact that there's a Chronicles of Riddick poster in Christian's childhood bedroom. I'm sorry, what? There's also a scene where our leads shower and make out a whole lot with their clothes on. Are you asking yourself if that's hot? Apparently, it is. Don't question it.
And then there's that moment in the elevator...the one where Christian secretly fondles Ana behind a group of people set to Van Morrison's Moondance. Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwww. A little not-so-secret thing about me: I hate Van Morrison. His voice makes me shrivel up into a tiny Jaime ball and roll away, away away away from that awful sound and those awful lyrics. It's fight or flight where Van Morrison is concerned, and I always flee. So...yeah. That scene? The unsexiest sexy scene to ever unsexy on film. And then there's this other part where Ana walks in on Christian in his home gym (ugh), doing pull-ups while The Police's So Lonely plays in the background. I'm sorry...he has a Riddick poster AND he works out to The Police? Who is this guy? And who picked the music to this film...my dad? And then he does this weird gymnastic-y thing on his pommel horse, because yes, he has a pommel horse in his gym, and we're supposed to swoon? I mean, Ana does, but am I supposed to be awed? In the words of Shania Twain, That Don't Impress Me Much.
And, strangest of all, there's the tongue-in-cheek moment when Dakota Johnson reenacts the final scene of Working Girl, quite possibly one of her mother's (Melanie Griffith) finest roles, and one of my personal favorites. After her despicable boss "resigns," Ana is unexpectedly thrust into his role. When her colleague asks her if she's supposed to call her Ms. Steele from now on, she replies, "I expect you to call me Ana. I don't expect you to fetch me coffee unless you're fetching some for yourself..." and on and on, verbatim. I'm sure that little inside joke was real cute when mom caught the premiere with her daughter, but please don't do that to Working Girl, or to me, or to the entire fucking planet. Thank you.
So all in all...what is there to say about Fifty Shades Darker that you didn't already know? Yes, it's a bit of a quagmire. Yes, it's a bit of a bore. It's like Ben & Jerry's Cookie Dough ice cream: there are some fun, tasty bits thrown in but at the end of the day vanilla is vanilla is vanilla. I love you Hollywood, but I am sick and tired of this kind of nonsense being forced down my throat. I say we rise up and write better stories for people who identify as women, for everyone and anyone who loves stories and worships the escape that is The Movies! We can do this - we are so much better than what we've been given. Are you with me? Yes? Let's go girls.