The “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon, spawned by the best selling book and now major motion picture, is uniquely American. It’s a triumph of style over substance and marketing above all else.
In a period where pornography of all kinds has become so accessible to the point of banality, this film’s ability to both titillate and intrigue modern audiences is worthy of a certain level of begrudging awe (the AMC theater chain has even felt the need to ban whips from screenings). And yet at its core it’s selling a relatively old fashioned romantic trope – good girl falls in love with bad boy she wants to change, but will he?
The novel, which has reportedly sold over 100 million copies (at one point as many as two per second), has been critically reviled for its poor prose and pilloried for its far-from-nuanced portrayal of kink. And yet the film version’s slick ad campaign, killer soundtrack and near ubiquitous promotion have helped make the erotic romance a national talking point. The movie, which opened Friday, is a distinct improvement on its source material and yet it has many of the same fundamental problems.
“It’s not written for men, it’s a fantasy for women,” author E. L. James told msnbc host Ronan Farrow in a recent interview. And yet, upon viewing this undeniably audience-friendly piece of pop entertainment, some may wonder why any woman would be drawn to the story’s male namesake – the fictional 27-year-old billionaire businessman Christian Grey, played by a wooden and miscast Jamie Dornan.
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It’s not entirely Dornan’s fault. He’s been given an almost impossible part (and some atrocious dialogue.) The novel spends much of its considerable length detailing Christian’s wealth and physical perfection (James writes, “No one should be this good looking”) without giving him much of a soul. The character has a single-minded preoccupation with persuading his virginal new conquest, a college grad-to-be improbably named Anastasia Steele, to indulge him in his BDSM lifestyle even though she is clearly uncomfortable with it.
Her tentative dance towards potentially embracing his “tastes” (complete with an elaborate contract he goads her to sign) serves as the backbone to the story, which despite some heavily choreographed, but still very chaste sex scenes, plays like a romantic comedy for much of its screen time.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” the movie is unique in that it will likely both invite derision and adoration from audiences depending on their point of view. The terrific Dakota Johnson imbues her big screen version of Anastasia with far more agency and wit than her “literary” counterpart, whose inner monologues inexplicably sound like dialogue from the 1960s “Batman” television show (“Holy cow, ” is her character’s favorite phrase of choice while describing her orgasms). And the movie itself eschews the overheated earnestness of the book for some well-earned laughs at the expense of the film’s often embarrassing subject matter.
And yet whenever the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” threatens to take a turn into darkness that the book didn’t, it quickly snaps back into the form of a remarkably faithful adaptation.
Make no mistake about it – this film is mainstream entertainment meant to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. This film is a franchise in the same way as the “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings” or “The Avengers.” It comes pre-sold with sequels and a heavy dose of audience awareness. It’s saturated the culture so much at this point that it’s pretty much too big to fail.
Oddly enough, this year has already been dominated by this kind of “zeitgeist” movie, starting with “American Sniper.” These are films that become events because of the “controversy” they generate as well as their box office numbers (which becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy). They drive audiences into pro- or con- camps that often have little do with a film’s merits and much more to do with what they represent for their fans or detractors.
Much of the consternation around the “Fifty Shades of Grey” film has revolved around whether the sex scenes are too tepid, if the movie is any better written than the book and if its BDSM subplot is really just a smokescreen for rampant misogyny. And then there’s movie’s fetishization of money and its pristine portrayal of an almost universally white world.
These are all worthwhile conversations one suspects will peter out when another headline-grabbing movie invades the multiplexes. But for people who felt this material could have potentially pushed the envelope in terms of how sexuality is portrayed on film, it’s a huge missed opportunity.
The film’s R-rating was a dead giveaway. Anything more than a infinitesimal shot of male genitalia can provoke an alienating NC-17 rating, and some have pointed out that the film carefully avoids showing Anastasia experiencing an orgasm – despite that playing such a significant role in the book. In fact the sexuality in the film is either implausibly stylized or pathetically stilted.
Meanwhile, record numbers of cable viewers can watch skulls smashed in with abandon in the comfort of their own living rooms every Sunday night on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” – but somehow at the movies we’ve regressed to the point where the hint of an unwaxed vagina can provoke audible gasps from an audience.
In the late ‘60s into the late 1970s, Hollywood began testing the boundaries of how sexual behavior was depicted on screen. Films like “Midnight Cowboy,” “Last Tango In Paris” and “Don’t Look Now” suggested a brave new world where taboo images and themes might become the norm.
But the ‘80s ushered in a more mindless form of gratuitous nudity, which led to the mainstream cinema of today being almost devoid of mature sexuality. The impact of AIDS may have driven this phenomenon, along with the dominance of political conservatism for much of the last thirty years. But it also could be creative cowardice of the highest order.
The “Fifty Shades of Grey” novel is not art, but neither was Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather,” which spawned a film that many consider to be the greatest ever made. Despite the shortcomings of the James’ material – and there are many – there is obviously something compelling about it, and that could have been the source material for a potentially daring and insightful movie about sex.
Instead, the film is mostly an amusing but cynical product, and emblematic of a movie industry which bases success or failure on how a movie opened and whether or not it turned out targeted demographic groups.
It’s precisely why this film will not have a very long shelf life once the hysteria dies down. It doesn’t say or do anything new except maybe supplant Richard Gere’s character in “Pretty Woman” with a far more humorless, tortured version.
There is no real danger or charm in the Grey character or the film. It’s meant to go down easy, so that audiences will line up for part two (the movie, not unlike the book, is intentionally anticlimactic). In other words it’s just another assemble line blockbuster, strategically scheduled to reap the windfall of Valentine’s Day dollars – and nothing more. Holy cow.