-So. Much. Unintentional. Comedy.
I was originally going to do a ‘why Fifty Shades of Grey is underrated’ article on here because the amount of hate that these movies get is just so mind-boggling to me. Admittedly, there’s no justifiable defense to someone saying, “I don’t like them because the writing is bad,” or “I just don’t like movies with that much sex in them.” That’s fine, but for all of the people who react with such hatred (many of whom haven’t seen either movie) towards them, I wonder what really the problem is. In an age where every year we get countless superhero films or mindless action films, why is it so wrong for people to also appreciate the flip side of that? For every person who fantasizes about having superpowers, another fantasizes about having tremendous wealth. For every person who fantasizes about the sexualized female sidekick, another might fantasize about something a bit more tastelessly erotic. In other words, it’s all escapist entertainment, and to hate the Fifty Shades movies on principle is to hate people of both genders who like escapist entertainment different from yours. Actual criticisms on quality, writing, and the like are completely acceptable as long as they’re informed, but I’ve done with this series (as I’ve also done with Twilight) a very unique thing: defending it from people who immensely criticize and hate on it, without ever actually seeing a single second of the product.
The reason this movie, and the previous movie, is totally in my wheelhouse is how completely pulpy, senselessly melodramatic, astoundingly silly, and unbelievably self-aware they are. The final product in these movies has a director and writer who knows how boundlessly absurd the concept is, and they play up the sexualized glossiness of it because that’s what the fans of the material want to see. I can’t criticize a fan-base who is immensely happy with their product, more power to them, and for me, I have a great time going in once a year to laugh my way through these movies. They’re very unintentionally funny, and occasionally well-acted enough to rope you in for a scene or two because the drama is occasionally manipulative.
The first one had some special elements that aren’t replicated in this one, although I think the quality is about the same. The first film, because it dealt with the concept of dominance and had two characters in a very unhealthy relationship, we actually got to see stereotypical gender roles play out on screen just a little bit. Ana holds Christian to the highest standard because of her constant consumption of British literature and his immense wealth and looks, and Christian, used to getting what he wants and living isolated from everyday people, doesn’t understand the concept of boundaries and communication. The movie had visual motifs with the use of wood or cage-like patterns to strike the difference between the more animalistic side of Christian reconciling with a more tactile, smooth romantic side of Ana. The soundtrack was also great, and outside of the movie’s pacing really slowing with the extended ‘playroom’ scenes, Fifty Shades of Grey cracked my Top 25 in 2015. I think the more expressive emotional state of the first film isn’t replicated from first to second, likely because it went from two women directing and writing (Sam Taylor-Johnson and Kelly Marcel to James Foley and E.L. James’s husband Niall Leonard). So while more luxurious things like subtext and visual motifs are abandoned in the more pulpy second installment, there are plenty of improvements, and for those who would consider themselves fans of the series, you may even like this one better, although it’s a wash for me.
We pick up about a month from the last film’s ending, as Ana (Dakota Johnson) has started a job as an editor’s assistant for a Seattle publishing company. Ana is clearly not recovering from her break with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), Seattle’s richest bachelor who tried to start a BDSM relationship with her in the previous movie. She heads to a photography exhibition helmed by her friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), where she is ambushed by Christian, who begs to talk to her. When she relents, he offers a more romantic and traditional relationship, devoid of the ‘contractual’ duties imposed by their arrangement in the last movie. The film follows their second try, with Ana strongly traversing through Christian’s flaws to eventually reach a level of compromise that works for both of them. The problems: a psycho-ex (Bella Heathcote) who has gone completely postal, a former lover who doesn’t understand Christian’s softer side (Kim Basinger), and Ana dealing with her handsy boss (Eric Johnson).
The improvements are mostly in the performances, as James Foley gets more out of the two actors than last time. I wouldn’t say that either of them were bad in the first film, but Dornan was a bit stiff, where here he really commits to making this character a bit more personable. Dakota Johnson, on the other hand, can still cry and emote with ease, but makes Ana into a headier and stronger character than last time, being more assertive and mature in the way she deals with Christian’s shortcomings. As the compromise begins to happen, the characters actually begin to look more like characters than they did in the first one. If there were doubts about the actors’ chemistry, and there were plenty, watching this movie should (at the very least) convince the viewer that they are both good actors and have good chemistry with one another. Dornan, while rumored for much bigger projects in the future, has been previously great in BBC’s ‘The Fall’ and in Anthropoid from last year, while Dakota Johnson completely nailed roles in A Bigger Splash, How to be Single, and Black Mass in recent years. There were no cute moments between the two in the first, but here, we actually buy that these two people really do love each other. Also, it’s recognized that in order to save on budgeting, much of the takes for this and the next movie were done in succession with only 1 or 2 takes for each scene. It explains why a few things fall pretty flat, but speaks to the actors’ credibility and overall ability when there are some well-acted scenes.
The movie is just as glossy as the first, with a richer color palette, and it really is shot gorgeously. Because more events happen in this one, the sex scenes are trimmed down so they are only fleeting, despite there being a few of them. Rather than last time, where the film would completely stop for a 5-10 minute sex scene, here we just get spurts and then a cut away, which I think serves fans in the same way, but stops regular viewers from myself from checking my phone or zoning out as the scenes go on. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s way more intense in this movie. They may do less ‘kinky’ stuff, but the sex is filmed in a way raunchier manner. I was a bit surprised some of this even made it in.
So, if you’re looking for a movie that satisfies a more intellectual base, you’re not going to like Fifty Shades Darker. I can’t possibly tell someone to watch it if this movie is going to make them uncomfortable, or if they are a sophisticated viewer who just doesn’t like more mainstream entertainment. However, for people who go into movies with an open mind and just care about being entertained, this will do the trick. There’s no reason that you can’t sit down and watch this with your significant other and laugh throughout the run-time. It’s supposed to be dumb, and you sometimes just have to let the style work for you. It’s okay to be a guy and enjoy this, we all know you’d like to have a billion dollars, drive an R8, and be as muscular and handsome as Jamie Dornan. There’s no reason that an average audience member who consumes stuff like Fast and the Furious or John Wick can’t reconcile someone else’s love for a movie like this.
Fifty Shades Darker (2017)
Director: James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross, At Close Range, ‘House of Cards’ episodes)
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Bella Heathcote, and Kim Basinger
with: Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, and Marcia Gay Harden
RT Score: 9%