If we had a penny for every sexy, breathy inhale in Fifty Shades Darker, we’d have a lot of pennies. But perhaps not enough to match Seattle’s most eligible billionaire Christian Grey. There’s more than meets the eye with this elusive bachelor, and that, in part, is the attraction for the “mousy” brunette Anastasia Steele. That and his penchant for BDSM, or the erotic practice of bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadism/masochism. Much of Darker revolves around the interplay between Christian and Anastasia, usually in the bedroom but sometimes outside. There’s not much else going on here, which makes the two-hour running time feel more painful than even Anastsia could handle.
Anastasia, or Ana for short, is played with delicate monotony by Dakota Johnson. She wants a publishing career and she’s got the editorial talent and digital savviness for it. Unfortunately, her creepy boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) and stalker ex-boyfriend Christian (Jamie Dornan) have other plans for her. Hyde is one step away from an HR violation, and Grey is complicated. In the real world, Ana might leave the job and ex altogether and start fresh in a new city. Seriously, who wants to live in Seattle? (No offense.)
But that’s not what screenwriter Niall Leonard has planned for the young ingénue. After all, the story is based on the second installment of the international best-selling Fifty Shades book trilogy written by E.L. James, Leonard’s wife. James started out writing Twilight fan fiction and after attaining online success she worked the stories into a series of erotic romance novels. The first film adaptation, Fifty Shades of Grey, grossed $571 million at the worldwide box office in 2015. Despite its successful pedigree, Fifty Shades Darker feels like it’s lost some of the first film’s shine. They say you never forget your first. Perhaps that’s true in this case, which makes Grey a tough act for Darker to follow.
That doesn’t mean the story is bad. There’s an audience for a nice campy erotic drama. But this one is messy, even more than Christian’s issues with his deceased biological mother. Part of the mess stems from the writing – it’s hard to take dialogue seriously with lines like, “Now you know what the silver balls do,” or, “Christian you know I love working. You can’t keep me locked up in your penthouse.” These are rich, white people problems and they would be kind of funny if they weren’t delivered so flatly.
This leads us to the next and most apparent problem: the absent chemistry between Ana and Christian. Their romance is as fictional as the scenarios that Ana finds herself in. (Seriously, who walks into a photo exhibit or gets promoted like that?) Rumors about negative tension between Johnson and Dornan ran rampant during the press tour for the previous film. But regardless of whether they liked each other or not in real life, they could have at least pretended on-screen. Dornan’s Christian is drier than a cardboard cutout. One wonders what Christian would have been like if played by Charlie Hunnam, the Sons of Anarchy star who was originally cast in the role but turned it down. Johnson’s Ana is monotonous, even when she’s “excitedly” steering a ship for the first time. Her goals are also unclear – does she want a relationship or a career or both? She wants to go to New York for a work trip in one scene, then quickly forgoes ambition for a little wine and sex. Her wishy-washy demeanor and Christian’s lack of expression makes their relationship feel contrived. Their conversations are merely intermissions between sex scenes, making their budding romantic relationship feel implausible and even sad.
Most people around Ana and Christian are normal, even likeable, like the token people of color co-workers or the bodyguard. Who knows why pop singer Rita Ora is in this but at least she’s the fun one. Other characters like Creepy Boss or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Bella Heathcote) are unformed. Kim Basinger’s role, in particular, is a missed opportunity. Her Elena Lincoln barely registers as the woman from Christian’s past, though she makes up for it in a juicy exchange with Marcia Gay Harden (Grace, Christian’s mother). The moment is deliciously campy soap opera-style high drama, and almost makes the whole movie worth seeing. Almost.
That’s the inherent problem of a film that tries to be an erotic romance when really it’s a mix of thriller, romantic comedy, workplace drama, (bad) softcore porn and fantasy. It spreads itself too thin and sacrifices tone and story in the process. Director James Foley, whose credits include Perfect Stranger and Glengarry Glen Ross, seems to want us to think it’s all about the sex, staging them theatrically while the rest of the film looks like a generic drama. The sex scenes try to be sensual, but they end up trashy and unbelievable. Pulsating, bass-heavy hip-pop music can’t hide how boring they really are. And there are so many of them – almost one per sequence – that they lose their intensity. Even a steamy rendezvous in the infamous red room is anticlimactic.
Perhaps this might have worked better had the film been lensed through the female gaze. The target audience here is clearly women, and the subject women’s fantasies. But it’s unclear if it would have worked with Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson at the helm. She had creative differences with E.L. James, which leads one to believe that perhaps the root of the problem is the writer’s own machinations. Regardless of who pulled the trigger, the filmmakers went for unbelievable realism, instead of total fantasy, which doesn’t make sense with a script that includes “kinky fuckery.” Sure, we learned some new terminology and probably won’t look at silver balls the same way again, but for a “BDSM film” Darker is actually pretty tame and there wasn’t any pleasure in watching it.