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Review: 50 Shades of Grey

This review originally appeared in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad. It is reprinted here with a couple of minor adjustments.

SPOILER ALERT: Nothing happens in 50 SHADES OF GREY. Nothing at all. The property’s idiot savant genius may be how well it achieves this tabula rasa narrative and aesthetic zen state. Its slate is so blank that the audience is free to project whatever they’d like on to it including the drama. BYOE: Bring Your Own Everything. Perhaps this accounts for its enormous “event” like status at the box office. 

We begin with an embarrassingly botched interview between a young woman who we're supposed to think of as a frumpy plain jane, an unstylish deer in the headlights if you will, and the snappily dressed über intimidating businessperson who will decide her fate. (Think The Devil Wears Prada plus sexual tension minus jokes). Naive and beautiful young Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), her name apparently downloaded from a romance novel generator, has gone to see the young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) but she's not actually supposed to be there. She's doing it as a favor for her sluttier worldly BFF Karla (think streetwise Kit to impossibly virginal hooker Vivian in Pretty Woman) who happens to be sick on the day of her interview with the college's most successful alumnus/eligible bachelor. 

So our leads meet quite by accident. Is it fate? Will it get kinky? 

In the movie’s first unintentional laugh (of many) we learn that Ana, who has great difficulty with Karla's simple written questions, as if she’s just now learning that those funny scratch marks on papers form "words", is in fact a literature major. Though Ana is an awkward and absolute bust as a journalist, and Mr Grey is an overachiever with zero-percent body fat who appears to have no patience for fools and reminds her that she has just 10 minutes, he falls hard and instantly. Do not search for a reason! (Provide your own as befits the BYOE ethos).

My best guess, and only because he mentions it, is that Christian likes the way Ana bites her lip. This lip nibbling is her one defining affectation. (If you took a shot each time she does it -- and it'd be wise to sneak drinks in -- you’d be drunk before the first sex scene.) But mostly Ana has no defining characteristics besides her naiveté and lip-biting. She's the perfect blameless empty vessel heroine in which the audience may flatteringly place themselves. In fact, the only thing non-generic about Dakota Johnson in the starring role is how instantaneously she recalls both of her famous parents: she looks like Daddy Don Johnson and sounds quite a lot like Mommy Melanie Griffith. Miraculously in a casting coup, she could also pass for the genetic offspring of her screen mother Jennifer Ehle. 

Jennifer Ehle and her counterpart Marcia Gay Harden, both ever dependable character actresses, have more fun than you'd expect as Ana and Christian's moms, respectively, considering that they're given next to nothing to work with. This movie is a conflict-free zone. Multiple scenes that in a normal movie might signal  “forthcoming drama!” like episodes wherein Christian meets Ana’s family and friends or when Christian introduces Ana to his mother, just recede as they've begun like innocuous commercial breaks between sex scenes.

Even in the sex scenes, conflict is hard to come by. And conflict is the life blood of storytelling.

Like Mr. Grey's glassy stark office and gorgeous minimalist home, both photoshoot ready as if no one has ever touched anything except to remove the price tags, the sex scenes are drained of humanity. It's impossible to imagine these bodies sweating or producing fluids of any kind. The movie is so sterile that you could quite reasonably and safely perform  operations in Christian’s “playroom” which looks more like a well stocked catalogue for S&M merchandise than a room where dozens of women have been tied up and pleasured over the years.

50 Shades (2015) has beautiful bodies......but Love You More (2008) has actual human sexuality

Given that the story IS the affair, one would hope for some escalation of effect. Perhaps the sex scenes will grow raunchier, more risqué, increasingly nude, or more dangerous feeling as the movie progresses? No such luck. On paper director Sam Taylor-Johnson seemed like a smart choice. Her early short Love You More (2008) manages to pack a features worth of sensuality, horniness and frisky playfulness (all of which might have worked for this feature) in its 15 minute story of two teenagers bonding over a vinyl purchase. But its more incisive and relatable about a sexual encounter than this 125 minute film.

Each heavily cut sex scene progresses in basically the same way: Christian strips Ana bare, binds her hands and/or instructs her to hold them up away from the action, and pleasures her intensely (implied multiple orgasms) with either his mouth or penis (both out of frame) or with very light toy play like slowly dragging across her body. Dornan's perfect ass gets a beautiful cameo and a suggestive thrust or two. In the theater in which I saw the film only one shot from the movie's multiple sex scenes elicited a small gasp from the crowd and that was a quick flash cut to Mr. Grey unbuttoning his pants for a very brief shot of pubes and the top of his shaft. After the movie I heard a group of girlfriends (with one guy) laughing about this shot, calling it "dick cleavage" and hoping it would become a trend in more movies. (Good luck with that. In Hollywood men are far more likely to have superpowers than penises)

Surprisingly the film is less a sex movie than a largely innocuous wealth fantasy: Date Night With the Billionaire: The Movie.


Christian wines and dines Ana, takes her on adventures, buys her expensive gifts, introduces her to his family, and occasionally makes love to her. When he’s not doing any of those things he’s constantly telling her that “I don’t do romance. I don't date." and "I don't make love, I fuck"  I could never claim to be an expert on dating, romance or sex (been off the market too long) but unless things have changed drastically since I met The Boyfriend, Christian is really really confused about what all of those words mean.

Christian’s only character flaw apart from this constant word confusion — he’s gorgeous, considerate, well educated, superhero-wealthy, romantic, plays the piano!, and is obviously a great lay — is that he pretty consistently informs his new girlfriend that he wants her to sign a dominant/submissive contract and basically own her body. Which is...okay, okay owning people is wrong. That's a deal breaker, ladies. But since Christian takes Ana into his playroom (where all his S&M gear is) pretty consistently throughout the movie and does nothing but pleasure her, what is it exactly that she's objecting to? 

At one point late in the movie, we realize along with Ana that Christian would like to spank her or some such and she asks him not to hold back; it’s the only way she’ll understand! Cut to: Christian flogging her extremely briefly — and with far less force than you’ve ever seen anybody hit anybody else on a movie screen — and Ana crying with disgust like this was the unforgivable final straw after all those multiple orgasms and expensive gifts. She wants no part of this well appointed surgically clean ultra safe freakshow!

They break up! OR DO THEY…?


I am embarrassed to report that I was so unaware of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon apart from its title, basic premise and popularity that I didn’t realize until after the movie ended that it's meant as a franchise rather than a standalone; the movie's cockteasing suddenly made sense. I wish I could report that 50 Shades of Grey was so bad it's good but it's too dull for that. "Bad movie we love” cult status will be hard to achieve unless the sequels are funnier/worse. In fact, only one scene seems to rise to the camp challenge. The movie's inarguable high point is a protracted “business meeting” between Christian and Ana about their forthcoming sex. She keeps giggling, as if she can’t quite take it seriously (join the club, Ana!) and he is all business. It’s also here where we get the movie’s most hilarious dialogue.

Genital clamps? Under no circumstance!"

and the instant classic

What are butt plugs?”

Aside from the camp value of this one scene and hilariously "subtle" details like Ana's oral fixation with a pencil with the "Grey" logo on it, it's just not dramatic enough to get away with its tame sex and not sexy enough to get away with its lame drama and not funny enough to get away with its stalling. It's not a movie with a story so much as a dull PG-13 pilot which is introducing all the characters who may or may not have issues with each other in some future movie... if you keep buying tickets. HBO and Showtime would probably turn it down for its timidity preferring to stick with the far more explicit and provocative sex scenes in Looking, The Affair, Game of Thrones, Masters of Sex, and so on. 

Grade: C-

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Reader Comments (20)

Ouch, sounds a lot worse than I thought it'd be. I wish I could direct all those people who went out to watch this movie this weekend to check out Nymphomaniac instead.

February 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

Thank you. I like this site when the emphasis is on film. Thanks for bringing it back to that.

February 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Thank you for "dick cleavage."

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Henry -- thank you but i'm not sure i follow. aside from maybe 1 tv post a week and the random aside to something like the Grammys we're always about film? (unless maybe you don't think of the oscars as film in which case... where am I? life is so confusing!)

sanfran -- thank the people outside the theater! i wish i'd thought of it

February 17, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The critic's job: to watch these films for us so we don;t have too. As Ted Hope says to the effect not enough time to see all the good films.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlen Risdon

So it isn't surprising that French boys and girls from age 12 can see this film with no problem. But Americans are so infantile that they can't handle watching sex on screen until they are 17, according to the ratings board.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

Naive and beautiful young Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), her name apparently downloaded from a romance novel generator...

The character or the actress? ::smirk::

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Nathaniel--I like all the subjects you mention. But lately, the site seems to have become distracted by a need to emphasize fringe ideas.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

MDA - now I want to see a Von Trier helmed 50 shades!

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterchoog

I was going to watch it on Friday, but the movie theatre was way too packed so, while I was waiting for the next session, I realized that my love for Marcia Gay Harden and male pecs was not enough to buy a ticket and I left.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Dick cleavage!!!!

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Am I the only person who spent most of the movie thinking, "I wish Lee Daniels had directed this?"

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Nat did you see this poster for Nicole's Queen of the Desert?

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered Commentermrripley

This book started out as Twilight fan fiction -- I guess that's why the lip biting is in there.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBia

choog - with Bjork doing the score and soundtrack!

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

Nathaniel, great review! It's funny how some movies will pull in the viewers, even though the stink on them comes from miles away. My favorite headline so far: 50 Shades of Beige

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

John T -- that's me in most movies, truly.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterWalter L. Hollmann

John T & Walter - i hear ya!

February 17, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

As someone who read the book (and the sequel, but not the third. I have my limits), I was dreading this being deadly dull, especially since the marketing left no traces of a potential campfest. To my surprise, I actually quite enjoyed it. The thing is, the first book especially is a romance with a sprinkling of BDSM for flavor - the sex is kinda hot, but it's pretty mild. The film really nailed the romance of it all, I thought, and while the sex may not have been the screen-searingly hot hotness people wanted (a man at my screening this evening shouted "Give me my money back!" when the credits started to roll, to everyone's laughter), let's be honest: We were NEVER going to get that. Not from a mainstream studio film. Probably not from any film (for my money, the only director whose version of this I would have wanted to see was Adrian Lyne, who knows from erotic drama). And while Jamie Dornan was mostly a dullard as Christian (he only came alive when at his most Dominant, which was not a good choice, even though it makes sense) Dakota Johnson was fantastic as Anastasia. HILARIOUS, and with a great grasp on the character.

And frankly, I think the film should silence those people who call it anti-feminist or whatever. Both Kelly Marcel's script and Sam Taylor-Johnson's direction, combined with Johnson's performance, make it VERY clear that Ana is the one with the control in the relationship - she drives just about everything, has clear reservations about the kinkiness and what it means, for him and for herself, and in the end (SPOILER) it's HER that calls it off when it isn't what she wants. There's also a clear point of view: This is the story of her sexual awakening alongside his romantic awakening, and how the two characters grow and begin to own those sides of themselves in the process of becoming a whole person. You can nitpick, but I think it's pretty clear that that's the story they were telling. And on that front, I think it was a job well done. Fifty Shades of Grey the film may be neither the so-bad-it's-good guilty pleasure some were hoping for nor the steamy erotic drama others were hoping for, but it might just be the best we could have ever hoped for, for better and/or worse.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Had a really good time reading Your review. 50 shades ir a really rubbish film. Seen it at the cinema with my girlfriend - in her opinion it's worth 3 out of 5. You got to be crazy to make a franchise from THIS! But I have to give credit to the guys behind the scene - they do know how to make money out of trash.

March 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKyle

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