Review: Fifty Shades of Grey


Fifty Shades of Grey

-- Anastasia Steele, far too infrequently in Fifty Shades of Grey

Oh, Hollywood, why do you tease me so, only to leave me sorely disappointed?

I'm referring, of course, to your tepid cinematic treatment of my most favorite kinky novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. I longed for ecstatic screams of agony and agonized screams of ecstasy, but the film delivered little more than one-percenter fu and some really lame spanking scenes.

I know that many a fine novel has suffered greatly in its journey to the big screen; such is the nature of turning books into movies. But your treatment of the brilliant Fifty Shades of Grey is downright disrespectful and, dare I say, deserving of a sound thrashing.

Before I get to the thrashing, I'll give those unfamiliar with Fifty Shades a Grey a two-sentence plot summary: College student Anastasia "Ana" Steele (Dakota Johnson) meets kinky billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who wants nothing more in life than to tie her up and beat her. Initially shocked, she finally submits to him -- and to the wanton desires of the naughty girl she truly is. That's really all there is to the story; great literature need not be complicated.

Now, for that thrashing I promised you. The film version of Fifty Shades of Grey fails on many levels, but its greatest offense is the glaring omission of Anastasia's inner goddess, a compelling literary device that is the novel's font of erotic insight. I was drawn to the story for many reasons -- but none moved me as profoundly as Ana's inner goddess, for she appealed strongly to my inner goddess. She gave voice to all I desire, as in this particularly provocative passage: "My inner goddess is beside herself, hopping from foot to foot. Anticipation hangs heavy over my head like dark tropical storm cloud. Butterflies flood my belly -- as well as a darker, carnal, captivating ache as I try to imagine what he will do to me." Sigh.

But to my great frustration, this goddess is AWOL in the film, as is most of the novelist E.L. James's piquant prose. Oh, how I had hoped to hear Ana's breathless voiceovers, reminding us that Christian Grey is a hotter-than-hottie and expressing her -- and my -- most passionate secrets: "His expression pulls at that dark part of me, buried in the depths of my belly -- my libido, woken and tamed by him, but even now, insatiable."

Poetic patter of this caliber, all too rare in the crassly commercial literary marketplace, is the novel's heart and soul -- but alas, we hear almost none of it in the movie! It shares precious few of Ana's libidinous thoughts, leaving her, how shall I say it … unprobed. Instead, there is a lot of rom-com banter and garish consumerism. There are fleeting glimpses into Ana and Christian's psyches -- but we see far more glimpses of Christian's cars. Nice rides, yes -- but I had hoped for, if not windows deep into the characters' souls, at least more horse bridles and less horsepower.

Speaking of horse bridles: In the parlance of one's co-workers who are secretly into the ol' slap'n'tickle, Fifty Shades of Grey is rather vanilla. The sex scenes are irksomely restrained (no, that isn't a pun), no doubt to satisfy the church ladies and deeply closeted submissives who hand out MPAA ratings. Christian's impressive sadomasochistic playroom is better equipped than the toy section at your neighborhood smut superstore, but when he finally convinces Ana to play along, are we invited to watch the festivities? Yes -- but only barely and briefly. She's naked a lot, and there are floggers and riding crops and a fair bit of moaning and bucking. But when the excitement begins to build … the film cuts to Christian playing the piano. Although Fifty Shades of Grey devotes more than 20 minutes to handcuffs, ropes and moderate pain, kinky porn this movie ain't. It's more like an Audi commercial with nipples.

The film strays from the novel in many other ways also, as if to punish the audience by denying us the good stuff. Why isn't Christian creepily obsessed with Ana's diet, as he was in the book? Why is she wearing undies to dinner at his parents' house? (The Christian we all fell in love with in the book would never allow that!) And where -- where, I ask bitterly -- are the Ben Wa balls? Thanks to these omissions and concessions to Hollywood prudishness, the movie is a painfully pale imitation of the soaring literary triumph that inspired it.

The bottom line of Fifty Shades of Grey is that yes, Ana may suffer -- but her suffering is nothing compared to the audience's agony. (A side note: Christian asks Ana to sign a contract that outlines the details of their dominant/submissive relationship. In other words, what he can do to her and what he can't. But at the press screening I attended, the audience was afforded no such courtesy! Unlike Ana, we endured two hours of castigation without our written permission.) Where Fifty Shades of Grey should have been daring, it's muted (gagged, if you will) and timid. Ana endures a good smack or two on her shapely behind now and then, but the audience is tortured with excruciating boredom.

What would make Fifty Shades of Grey a better movie? If it can't be faithful to the novel, it should at least be far rowdier and more uncouth. The tone and pace should less suited to the tentative and polite seduction of a reluctant college girl -- and more like paying a drunk stripper a couple of hundred bucks to go home with you and let you give her the good spanking she deserves for being, well, a drunk stripper with no more sense than to go home with you. That kind of tonal hooliganism would make for a gloriously kinky and deeply satisfying film. (Somewhere on the Internet, I'm sure it does.)

I'll conclude by reminding you, Hollywood, that Fifty Shades of Grey is not only an insult to the fine work of E.L. James, but also an affront to the novel's legions of fans. For your sake, do not let this happen again. Let us hope this is not the case with the sequels; if it is, I assure you there will be consequences -- serious consequences.

Surprising Austin/Texas connection: Dakota Johnson was born in Austin.