'Fifty Shades of Grey' Franchise Gets Off to Shaky Start

Film Review

The problem with pornographic films is often the plot. You know the drill. The storyline often centers on some guy cleaning a pool who soon starts banging a housewife and then it’s just one sex scene after another. Hardly the stuff of compelling cinema. While 50 Shades of Grey, the film based on the best-selling E.L. James novel of the same name, aspires to something more than your average everyday porno, it suffers from the same dull strategy — start with a simple storyline in which boy meets girl and then bring on the sexcapades. And while there’s a notable twist at work here, it’s not enough to redeem this mediocre movie.

At the movie’s start, mousey Anastasia “Ana” Steele, a 21-year-old English major who wears blouses that look like they’re from the Victorian era, has to fill in for her roommate Kate and interview wealthy businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for an article for the school newspaper. Clearly nervous, she has a hard time making it through the questions Kate has prepared for her and leaves without getting the answers. There’s clearly some sexual tension between the two of them, even though it’s of the opposites-attract sort (he’s super wealthy, and she’s struggling to get by and drives an old VW bug) .

Still, the two begin dating and Christian deflowers her, igniting a sexual awakening of epic proportions. But there’s a problem. Christian has a few hang-ups. Namely, he makes Ana sign a non-disclosure form to ensure she won’t discuss their relationship. That’s not terribly unusual — he’s a public figure, after all. But he also wants her to become his “submissive” and introduces her to a room in his house where he has an arsenal of sex toys that range from handcuffs to peacock feathers. There's even some contraption that lowers from the ceiling.

She balks at signing the contract allowing her to become, as she puts it, his “sex slave.” During a formal meeting, she negotiates some items on the contract — there shall be no anal or vaginal fisting, she insists. And she wants to go on an actual date once a week. It’s one of the film’s best moments as it gently pokes fun of the ridiculous nature of the situation. Even without a signed contract (call it “due diligence,” Christian says), the two dabble in the world of BDSM. Predictably enough, they reach an impasse that conforms to gender stereotypes. She wants an emotional connection. He remains distant and more interested in a physical than an emotional relationship. And then the movie ends (it's a trilogy, after all), setting up the inevitable sequel.

While Johnson gives Ana a good sense of humor and lightens the mood when things get too soap opera-like, Dornan is simply too stiff (pun intended) in his role. Much of the sexually charged dialogue (“I don’t make love. I fuck — hard,” Christian says at one point) will elicit laughs from the audience, suggesting that this adaptation has really missed the mark.