Like it or not, 2015’s film version of Fifty Shades of Grey had one thing really going for it: a depiction of sex and sexual activity that was not just prurient, but also a focal plot point that drove a story. It’s one of the few modern mainstream films, and certainly the only one that grossing hundreds of millions of dollars, that deals with sex in an adult and sincere manner.
Quick recap: virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) agrees to be a submissive to the dominant billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) in an exclusively sexual relationship; but as their relationship develops, the sex gets in the way of their growing emotional bond. And vice-versa.
Eventually, the kinky stuff gets to Anastasia, and the film ends with her leaving Christian – a man she might love but whose sexual nature she can not cope with – for good.
In this sequel, she hooks back up with him, without an iota of resistance, during the first ten minutes. The rest of the film depicts how good, and healthy, and hopelessly boring, both their relationship and sex life have become.
With a title like Fifty Shades Darker, we expect perhaps that the sex, or the emotional content behind it, might get, well, you know, darker.
No. Christian has given up the whips for good – unless, of course, Ana is 100% down with them – and relegated himself to controlling her emotionally in the more socially accepted boyfriend-girlfriend sense. “We’re leaving.” “No, you may not go to New York.” “This is not a discussion.”
Incredibly, Ana now submits to this stuff. She doesn’t go to New York. And as the film reveals every woman’s deepest darkest fantasy – not to be controlled by men in the bedroom, but rather in every other aspect of life – you might feel start the bile build up in your throat.
Christian is there for Ana when she needs him, like when pervy boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) attempts to assault her in his office, or when Christian’s former sub Leila breaks into Ana’s apartment to pull a gun on her. While each of these characters raises a potential threat, they’re dealt with offscreen as soon as things get interesting.
Ditto Kim Basinger’s Elena Lincoln, Christian’s former lover and the abusive “Mrs. Robinson” referred to in the previous movie. She merely raises mild concerns about the central relationship, the film unable to give her anything of significance to do or even explain her continued presence in Christian’s life.
In lieu of a compelling narrative, the script throws these characters and other events at us with all but no connective tissue, then completely forgets of their existence as it moves to the next Big Thing. There’s even a helicopter crash so out of tune with both the rest of the movie and general logic that the audience can only laugh at the film’s audacity.
The director behind Fifty Shades Darker is James Foley, who once made At Close Range and After Dark, My Sweet, and the excellent star-studded adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s his first feature since the 2007 Halle Berry-Bruce Willis bomb Perfect Stranger, and is so devoid of character or life or even a point-of-view that it’s surprising to see any director attached to it at all.
But for all the film’s other flaws, it’s biggest is this: it has taken the lone interesting aspect of the original, the intense sex-fueled central relationship, and turned it into your average boyfriend-girlfriend romance yarn within its first ten minutes.
And then it goes on for another two hours of inexplicable melodrama.