Fifty Shades of Grey is that hot date you bring home to discover (s)he's a cold fish between the sheets. It's that online hookup that gets you all hot and bothered with dirty talk on the Internet and then turns out to be an uptight clean freak who asks you to take a long shower before doing the nasty and thinks bodily fluids are yucky. In short, it's a stiff – for all the wrong reasons.
The long-awaited screen adaptation of the first entry in novelist E. L. James' insanely popular erotic trilogy is also very, very gray. The film opens with an unimaginative, literal-minded montage that kicks off with time-lapse images of very gray clouds before salivating over every item in the titular character's possession: neatly rolled-up ties in his drawer, custom-made business suits hanging in his closet, luxury cars parked in his garage. They're perfunctory glimpses of testosterone-tinged affluence in what is ostensibly a femme-driven tale of a burgeoning S/M relationship.
The sequence is a succinct introduction to studly magnate Christian Grey (Irish actor Jamie Dornan, faring better than I expected) and his blandly posh lifestyle. It's also all too representative of the film that follows: glum, astonishingly strait-laced, yet also agreeably glossy. Working from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel, director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) also kills any mystery about this reserved billionaire when it should be withholding any peek at him, rendering him a mundane Master of the Universe before he even gets an opportunity to introduce himself to us, and our surrogate.
That would be English lit major Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith), who agrees to drive from the campus of Washington State University to Grey's sleek Seattle offices. She's scheduled an interview of the 27-year-old entrepreneur for her college newspaper, something she's doing as a favor to her roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford), who had scored the enviable sit-down, after an inopportune cold takes her out of commission. As meet-cute devices go, the one-on-one is perfectly adequate to establish the power play that ensues, which makes the way Taylor-Johnson bungles the scene that much more dismaying. From a journalistic standpoint, Anastasia is all thumbs, but we're distracted more by the stilted staging than the character's awkwardness, which is neither cute nor charming. Granted, Marcel's dialogue, which, I gather from colleagues who have read the books was either taken verbatim from James' prose or is otherwise faithful to it, is all too willing to play all this silliness straight, with some tone-deaf levity thrown in. But there's still no reason why this crucial first encounter between the protagonists ought to feel so flat-footed. It's not just Anastasia who literally trips her way into Christian's cushy office.
It takes considerable skill to handle subject matter this salacious in such chaste and decorous fashion, and as such James' soft-core romance has been distilled into the easy-listening equivalent of sadomasochism, a slick coffee table book of a film for lapsed Twihards ready to move on to the next level. By the next level I mean a courtship that doesn't take three movies and change to get to actual intercourse and which doesn't fade to black once it reaches that milestone.
But the film flows along regardless, thanks in large part to Dornan's intense gaze – think Mr. Darcy by way of Patrick Bateman – and production designer David Wasco's impeccably assembled interiors. The big black hole sucking all the life out of this watered-down, conspicuously tame foray into sexual obsession is Johnson (the TV series Ben and Kate), who overplays the ingenue routine in a way that makes it very difficult to buy her as a worthy stand-in for the film's target audience. (Think of the young Charlotte Gainsbourg, then take away spine and moxie.) I could never fully surrender to Anastasia's journey of self-discovery because she fails to strike a balance between her inexperience in matters of the flesh – and the heart – and her romantic ideals. At one point, Christian asks her if she considers herself a romantic, and she replies, “I'm an English lit major. You kind of have to be one,” a remark that a true romantic would never say. Where is her inner life? What is it about, say, Thomas Hardy's writing that made her want to study literature? Taylor-Johnson and Marcel leave us hanging in this regard, and as a result, Johnson's Anastasia is ultimately too much of a blank slate. (Readers familiar with the novels know exactly how much of a blank slate she is, but I will refrain from delving further.)
With college graduation looming on the horizon, Christian comes into Anastasia's life at a significant crossroads, but the film is too preoccupied with ensuring its surfaces are shiny and seductive to place her growing attraction toward this secretive suitor in the context of the transitional juncture she's experiencing. Even more disappointing: The filmmakers have zero interest in exploring the class difference between the lovers, an aspect that by all means should seep into their relationship but which is reduced to innocuous wish fulfillment. (One bright spot here: Marcia Gay Harden getting her grande dame game on as Christian's mom.)
Then there's Fifty Shades' depiction of S/M, which ought to feel taboo and titillating but is anything but. It's a pipe dream, of course, to expect a truly adventurous filmmaker like Catherine Breillat or Jane Campion would have scored this directing gig, but Taylor-Johnson should have done well to follow their lead in the way those directors use their characters' body language to convey the shifting dynamics of their bond. By comparison, Taylor-Johnson's sex scenes, even when they're supposed to be kinky, are generic and dull, Victoria's Secret photo spreads with peek-a-boo glimpses of pubic hair. Surfaces matter in an undertaking like a movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey, but there needs to be something resembling an erotic charge fueling those pretty images, and this is what makes this such a perplexing letdown.
It's telling that the film's strongest scene is a business meeting which frames Anastasia and Christian at opposite ends of a conference room table negotiating the terms of what's deemed permissible in Christian's “singular” sexual predilections. Like the film they're on, it's antiseptic and formal, the cinematic equivalent of a first-time job seeker embellishing his/her résumé in order to pass off as a pro. But who are we kidding here? This humorless, flavorless concoction is smut, and even worse, it's smut that thinks it's high art, an overeager date dousing him/herself with too much perfume to appear more enticing. Identity-wise, it forgets the number one rule of dating: Be yourself.