Fitty Shades of Grey Is Not About Sex / Movie Review
Fifty Shades of Grey Is Not About Sex—and It’s Surprisingly Good
FEBRUARY 11, 2015 6:30 AM
by JOHN POWERS
If you go to a lot of Hollywood screenings, you know there’s a special trembling in the air when the audience expects the movie to be good. But the air couldn’t have been deader at the Fifty Shades of Grey preview last night at the ArcLight. Yes, you heard a few scattered female whoops when the film finally started, but until then, every person you talked to had a bad feeling. We’d all heard reports that stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan had no chemistry. We’d heard that director Sam Taylor-Johnson didn’t see eye-to-eye with E. L. James, the author of the original books. As if that weren’t enough, the whole enterprise seemed ripe for disaster. At the best of times, it’s hard to adapt a popular novel for the screen, and here was a massive bestseller stuffed with scads of BDSM action—this in an era when Hollywood movies have become all spandex and no sex. Small wonder we were all on flop-watch. Critics prepared their snide jokes in advance; I’d already worked up a riff on the history of lousy sex movies.
Then the lights went down, and guess what? Fifty Shades of Grey turned out to be not just entertaining—at least until the clunky, exasperating final minute—but it also knows exactly what it’s doing. As you’re doubtless aware, it’s the story of a virginal, romantic English major, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who gets involved with a handsome, uptight, controlling billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) who doesn’t do hearts and flowers—he’s into handcuffs and floggers. Whereas the novel treats their relationship with a seriousness others might reserve for Bible study, Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel see what’s funny in this fetishistic scenario. The couple’s early encounters possess an unexpected lightness—Johnson’s got a wonderful comic touch—and when Steele and Grey negotiate the written contract he’s prepared stating exactly what he can do to her body, the scene’s absurdity is saved by the filmmaker’s droll awareness that it’s absurd. Even when the two of them get down to the de rigueur sex stuff, most of which is generic R-rated business—you know, ice cubes sliding down torsos, the obligatory bare breasts and bums—the movie doesn’t submit to the dominance of dark eroticism. Like a vintage fifties melodrama, it takes lurid material, cleans it up, gives it a high gloss, and turns it toward heady and healthy emotion.
You see, whether James knows it or not, the original Fifty Shades of Grey is essentially a YA novel with bondage. For all its dirty bits, it’s not actually about Anastasia experiencing the joys of rough sex (though she does get off on some of it). It’s about how she redeems the psychologically twisted Grey—it’s not for nothing his first name’s Christian—by teaching him how to love, in part by meeting him halfway in his desires. This is, beneath it all, corny stuff, but what makes it engaging is Johnson, an actress of ineffably awkward charm, who pulls off the trick of bringing a thinly drawn character to vibrant life. While Dornan gets better and more complicated as the film goes along—at first, he displays all the erotic voltage of a taller Ryan Seacrest—Johnson is great all the way through. Channeling both her father, Don Johnson, and her mother, Melanie Griffith, she manages to do two opposite things at the same time. Even as she finds Grey’s style and sexual tastes rather amusing (in this, she is the audience’s surrogate), her every expression and gesture reveals she’s also really turned on by him. You can never really predict these things—who could’ve guessed Robert Pattinson would become bigger than Kristen Stewart?—but with Fifty Shades of Grey, it looks like Dakota Johnson has just made herself a movie star.
For Dakota Johnson, a minute is never just a minute: