Just in time for Valentine’s Day came the heartwarming story of a man who bounds, gags and flogs his girlfriend. It’s “Fifty Shades of Grey,” based on E. L. James’ 2011 erotic novel, the first in three books that comprise a sort of “Lord of The Cock Rings” trilogy. And having seen the film, I can now ungag myself and say: This was what all the fuss was about? Something this boring? And deeply offensive, too (and not in a good way)?
I mean, are “dominants” really just sick, damaged people who are afraid of real love and intimacy? Do they run around spouting endless pulp-fiction crap about their sexual tastes? (“I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele.” “If you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week.”) And are their yawn-inducing sex acts like outtakes from a Cirque du Soleil “Zumanity” show?
As in the book — which boldly cannibalized “Twilight” in vampiric fashion — college student Anastasia Steele interviews cocky magnate Christian Grey for the school paper, which eventually leads to a purely sexual relationship whereby he not only ties her up and spanks her, but wants her to sign a nondisclosure contract. It’s like working for Harvey Weinstein, LOL.
After they meet cute, Christian tracks down Anastasia at the hardware store where she works (I guess she didn’t get a scholarship), and things get icky yet enticing for the girl when he asks her to round up cables, masking tape and some rope for him to buy, for strictly personal reasons. He ends up gagging her on occasion, but unfortunately she still talks — mainly irritatingly obvious stuff like. “I’m not jumping at the opportunity to be whipped and tortured.” (Neither was I, but having willingly sat down for this movie, I clearly had no choice.)
But it’s not just the dialogue that’s off here, it’s the whole premise. I know it’s not a documentary, but the film gets something wrong about slick, rich operators like Christian Grey. Yes, way more than one self-made billionaire has engaged in domination and torture, but trust me, they’re almost always on the flip side of the cat o’nine tails. They’re the ones who want to be abused, not obeyed. Anyone who’s gone to an S&M club can attest to the number of Wall Street CEOs cowering on the floor, begging to get peed on.
But here we get the archetypal sadistic male with the pliable gal, resulting in sex scenes so screamingly dull you hardly rejoice when he sits her down to negotiate terms that’ll give him even more power in the dungeon. “Genital clamps. Absolutely not,” says Anastasia, going over the contract he’s handed her to approve. (I’m not making this shit up.) “Consider them gone,” says Christian, in a rare genteel gesture. She doesn’t sign it anyway — she just keeps going headlong into an experiment in sacrificing free will in order to please her twisted man. While doing so, the character comes off so Rose Nylund-dumb it hurts. Having apparently just crawled out from under a rock, Anastasia has no idea what a butt plug is; she looks around his hate shack and asks, “Why am I here, Christian?” and even after endless whoopings and conversations about vaginal fisting, she doesn’t realize that this whole scenario isn’t quite right for her until he gives her six lashes. (No, not eyelashes — though it would have been more interesting if Christian really was gay, as people assume he is, and he tortured women by giving them bad beauty tips.)
In one of many lame bits of dialogue, Anastasia finds herself a compliant prisoner in Christian’s bland room of pain and asks, “How many women have stayed here?” “Fifteen,” he answers. “That’s a lot of women” is her brain-deadening retort. By this point, even Ben-Wa balls wouldn’t have woken me up.
As the exploratory virgin, Dakota Johnson (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson) has a hard time measuring up to all the script’s superlatives about how blindingly gorgeous she is; anyone would. What’s more, her moist-eyed, mealy-mouthed “Gee, whiz” routine quickly grows tiresome — though at least she gives the impression that she might be good in a better film.
Northern Irish actor Jamie Dornan, on the other hand, is a total washout as Christian, a control freak with a dark secret, who loves to push buttons while admitting he’s “50 shades of fucked up.” Dornan has a nice torso, which he shows about every three minutes, but there‘s nothing going on behind his car-salesman eyes and not in a way that sheds any light onto Christian’s blankness either. As played by Dornan, there’s precious little that’s interesting about this guy’s pain or the pain he wants to inflict on others, whereas a young Christian Bale type might have exuded more attention-grabbing textures. Besides, the whole time you’re wondering why someone this rich can’t just buy a hooker to do whatever the fuck he wants. A whore probably wouldn’t be into his fetishy rituals any more than Anastasia is, but at least she’d pretend to like it.
The book this was all based on was apparently not exactly high literature — The New York Times said it was “dull and poorly written” and the author is “like a Bronte devoid of talent” — but surely a more convincing sexual saga could have been wrung out of it than this tepid affair directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. When it finally ended after two hours of lugubrious emotional foreplay, the entire screening audience let out a sort of unison belch to express their horror. As I left, I screamed my safe word: “Enough!”
Michael Musto is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.