Monday, 16 February 2015

Movie Review: Fifty Shades Of Grey (2015)

It seems like there’s a lot of need in the world of internet criticism to find the next Twilight; a romantic film or series of films that can capture the cynical zeitgeist and bring us so many reiterations of “This is so bad, it’s hilarious” that we inevitably grow tired of it in record time. We’ve had a couple of flashes in the pan in recent years, like The Host and a myriad of other YA adaptations, but nothing has really latched on with audiences yet or at least in the same way Twilight did. Well, when news that the most successful Twilight fanfiction of all time (no, seriously, that’s what it started out as) was getting a film adaptation, there was much frothing at the mouth that this might be just what the doctor ordered. But how does it actually turn out? This is Fifty Shades Of Grey.

The plot: Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), after interviewing him for her college newspaper, becomes infatuated with young multimillionaire Christian Grey (James Dornan). As their relationship intensifies, Christian begins to reveal the darker sides of his personality as well as his sexuality, asking Anastasia to follow him down this path and become his submissive. Anastasia must decide if her love for Christian warrants her becoming what he wants of her, or if their relationship must end.

I am going to go the safe route and assume that the majority of my readers have enough going on in their lives to not have read the original book. As such, I will reserve my thoughts on adaptation for later on and instead focus as best I can on this film as it stands, and what better way to start than with our two leads Dakota and James. Their apparent backstage dislike for each other has been highly publicized at this point, with numerous articles and interviews showing off just how awkward these two around each other in real life. It should come as no surprise then, given this information, that they have the on-screen chemistry of two pieces of A4 paper: The supposed sizzling romance between these two is non-existent and the fact that neither actor is capable of even… you know, acting like they can stand each other’s company is a big part of that. It doesn’t help that their relationship is classic drive-by “we need to set this up as quickly as possible” style of development, which makes Christian’s actions ring even more like those of a possessive stalker given how little time is given for actual attraction to occur on-screen. Of course, that’s not exactly difficult to do given how he is written in the first place, but we’ll get to that in due time.

So, the actors are no good at pretending to be into each other. But how are they on their own terms? Well, the acting is extremely weak for the most part overall, which I consider to be more of a fault of the script than the actors because they actually fulfill their roles well enough… it’s just that their roles are exceptionally poorly written. Anastasia is naïve to the point of acting like she is still in high school despite evidence to the contrary and Dakota plays her in just that way. Christian is supposed to be sexy but instead comes across as creepy a lot of the time and James does that remarkably well. The rest of the actors are pretty much just cyphers and aren’t even worth mentioning, all except for one: Jennifer Ehle, who plays Anastasia’s mother, is appalling in this movie. She’s given a lot of rather jocular lines, a big mistake considering she speaks them as if she is still learning how to speak fluent English and hasn’t gotten inflections down yet.

As much as it pains me to admit, some of the sex scenes here have a certain sensuality to them that helps the idea of BDSM that the story is centered around. However, this doesn’t mean that they come across as sexy in any way, shape or form. Now, rather than step into unknown territory and talk about BDSM as if I know thing one about it, I’ll instead stick to something that I and many other people who frequent the Internet are a little too familiar with: Porn. There’s a reason why porn plots are as weak as they are, and it isn’t just because the sex is the main focus and what leads into it doesn’t ultimately matter so why put effort into it? It’s also so that they can avoid putting any unneeded or potentially uncomfortable context to the sex scenes that could in any way hinder the enjoyment for the viewer, sticking solely to details that appeal specifically to certain fetishes. Put simply, it is designed to be consequence-free, something that’s a lot easier when you don’t give it any room in which to have consequences for all the horizontal jogging that goes on. Context is precisely why these sex scenes aren’t in the least bit erotic; in the lead-up to them, we see Christian being a controlling, abusive person who is solely out for his own satisfaction. I immediately feel bad for picking on The Wedding Ringer for similar reasons because at least there that was all in subtext that I had to read into. Here, it’s splayed out on the screen for all to see. A lot of other critics have unfavourably compared this to 2002’s Secretary and while I’d rather avoid that dead horse of an argument, I will say that one of the key reasons why that film worked where this one doesn’t is a brain-numbingly simple concept: Consent. Both parties in Secretary actively want the arrangement and both derive pleasure from what goes on. Here, Anastasia is pressured into agreeing to it because it’s the only way she can be with Christian, even if she doesn’t get enjoyment out of it on her own terms. As much bile has been thrown on Twilight over the last several years, at least both parties actually wanted to be together and weren’t being forced into it… for the most part, when Edward wasn’t distancing himself from Bella for no good reason but that’s a whole other story.

The soundtrack for this is actually really good and surprisingly classy, given the subject matter. We have a lot of smoky and seductive numbers, like Annie Lennox’s cover of I Put A Spell On You that opens the film and a slowed-down remix of Beyoncé’s Crazy In Love that I find myself liking better than the original, a feat considering I really like that song to begin with. We also have Ellie Goulding, Sia and The Weeknd throwing their vocal hats into the ring with songs that add to the sexual bewitchment theme of the soundtrack, along with the classic Frank Sinatra rendition of Witchcraft which is also the only song on the soundtrack that actually appeared in the novel. A wise move to stick with just that one, since I doubt that Kings Of Leon’s Sex On Fire would have worked as well in this rendition of the story.

Now for the “fun” part: How does this film compare to the original book? Well, given how so many films these days are adapted from other sources, I’ve made the conscious effort not to actively go out and read everything that the films I see are based on; I simply don’t have enough time for it. This is a big exception, however, as I was kind of curious about what all the fuss was about and thought this was the perfect excuse. Put simply, I now have a better understanding of the nature of BDSM having read through it. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the book also mangles what it actually is, even worse than the film does, but I can now properly visualize an experience that is painful but that also brings a certain level of enjoyment to it; my experience of reading the book in a nutshell. The prose is absolutely ludicrous, the sex scenes range from bland to the beast with a billion nopes and the sexual politics are positively infuriating; if it wasn’t making me slam my face into the book several times out of sheer frustration, it was making me laugh out of just how awful it was. Now, to the film’s credit, they made the wise decision to cut out a lot of the more aggravating parts of the source material: No rape scenes, no sex scenes involving bloodplay, no moments where Anastasia is needlessly antagonizing the known control freak, save for one instance. Not only that, the film managed to improve one particular scene from the book where Christian and Anastasia are discussing the dominant/submissive contract that Christian has drawn up; it got a couple of cheap laughs because sex is never not funny, but it showed Anastasia exerting a certain level of control in the relationship, an added (although kind of useless) line that helps Christian not look as much like a controlling prick and, overall, the execution of the scene is very well-handled considering the original had all this happen solely through email communique.

Unfortunately, they also made a rather misguided decision and cut out a lot of the funnier parts (intentional or otherwise) from the film as well. The original was filled with a lot of weird cutaway gags that feel reminiscent of something I’d see in anime involving her subconscious and ‘inner goddess’ doing weird symbolic things in Anastasia’s head, something that never ceased to make me giggle regardless of the context. There were also some sprinklings of self-awareness throughout that gave it the air that it was at least partially aware of how silly it was, making it come across more as an offbeat romantic comedy (at times) rather than a serious romantic drama. All of that is cut, leaving us with a film that is meant to be dark, sensual and something to be taken seriously… which never happens. What’s worse is that the few funny moments that are kept in, most of which are intentionally meant to be so, are delivered so straight-faced and stilted that they destroy whatever laughs can be gotten from, even when it isn’t intended; it’s like if someone made a dramatic remake of an Ed Wood movie. It’s that awkward that when the line of dialogue that gives the book/film its name happens, where Christian says that he’s “fifty shades of fucked up”, it’s even more jarring that it was even left in in the first place than it is in the actual book. Actually, because of how condensed the story is here as opposed to the book, a lot of the story feels jarring, most of all the ending which even in the original didn’t make much sense in terms of character action but here it is absolutely baffling and makes for one of the disjointed and rushed endings of the last few years.

I’ve seen quite a few names for directors who were also in line to helm this movie, like Breaking Dawn director Bill Condon and one of my favourite filmmakers Steven Soderbergh, and while I doubt Soderbergh would have done much better unless he just pulled a Kubrick in The Shining on this one, Bill Condon could have easily made this into a more faithful adaptation and kept it just as hilariously bad while leaving in only a few of the annoying moments. What this leaves us with is a bad film but not even one that’s bad in any of the fun ways; instead, one that’s bad in all the dull and disappointing ways. Yes, this film managed to make me disappointed about an adaptation of a book I don’t even legitimately like to begin with.

All in all… Jesus Christ, have I really written that much about this nothing of a movie? Okay, I’ll summarize as best I can: The acting is dull, the writing is stupid but not even laughably so, or at least enough to make sitting through it all worth it, the sex scenes are too clinical and riddled with bad lead-up to be titillating in any way and the story is only slightly less vexing than the original text. In the words of said original text, “That was about as emotionally enriching as cotton candy is nutritious.” It’s that rare kind of film that manages to be worse than the already awful text solely out of not being bad enough and going for mediocrity instead. It’s worse than The Quarantine Hauntings, as at least that film had potential to be legitimately good that it tried to capitalize on, but it’s only just better than The Wedding Ringer because this managed to make me laugh once or twice.

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