Exploiting our Archives: Scalding Hot Takes #7 50 Shades Freed
Back when I worked at The A.V Club back in the late 1990s, we implemented something called “The Futterman Rule” after an interview we conducted with actor Dan Futterman in connection with his 1997 film Shooting Fish. The Futterman Rule established that we’d say no to interviews with people on Futterman’s level rather than interview them just for the sake of having people to interview.
Futterman evolved into a surprisingly fascinating figure, segueing into screenwriting later in his career and picking up Oscar nominations for his work on Capote and Foxcatcher. As for The A.V Club, well, I don’t frequent the site much these days but my hunch is that they’re not having a lot of trouble nailing down interview subjects.
At the beginning of 50 Shades Freed, the concluding entry of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, I found myself contemplating a Futterman Rule-style new law for this website and podcast called The 50 Shades Rule. The 50 Shades Rule dictates that if the only much-buzzed about new release opening the Friday before we record looks as brutal and unpromising as 50 Shades Freed then we skip Scalding Hot Takes altogether and wait for something less self-evidently unwatchable to come along.
Having now watched four hours of 50 Shades of Grey onscreen in a two-day stint I can now say conclusively that my hunch that the movie is not worth watching despite its many interesting-seeming qualities was correct.
On paper, the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy don’t look good but they sure do look interesting. If nothing else, the fact that a multi-billion dollar cinematic trilogy began life as fucking fan fiction should make for a morbidly fascinating three-part train-wreck. 50 Shades of Grey wasn’t even fan fiction for something good and respectable, like Star Trek or Harry Potter. No, it was fan fiction for fucking Twilight, which itself was pretty fucking amateurish, if not quite fan fiction. That ensured that even if 50 Shades was, in fact, the rare fan fiction that matched the quality of its inspiration, it would still be laughably bad, widely mocked garbage.
Twilight was a sexy teen fantasy minus the sex, on account of the author being a devout Mormon. The “genius” of 50 Shades from a commercial standpoint, therefore, is that it didn’t just insert actual fucking into a previously chaste romance: it made fucking the book and movie’s centerpiece, its raison d’être.
Despite the handcuffs and spankings and sex contracts, the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy is fundamentally a traditional fairy tale with fucking and fisting. In the first film, plucky heroine Anastasia Steele (Dakota Jonhson) asks Christian Grey what she gets in return for agreeing to her lover’s sex contract.
Christian growls that if she submits to his contract and his urges, then her reward is simple: him. You get the hubby and the mansions and the private planes and trips around the world and fabulous lingerie and round the clock security and everything else that comes with being the wife of a billionaire. A boring, boring billionaire.
It’s the same prize that’s offered in The Bachelor, a show whose aesthetic and look and themes the movie borrows as much as it does anything from Twilight: the idea of romance and sex as a game that you play, and play hard, with a dream gig as the trophy wife of a handsome, powerful playboy as the ultimate reward. Having watched the Juan Pablo season of The Bachelor, I can vouch that the "reward" at the end of the whole sorry charade is actually more of a punishment.
Sure enough, 50 Shades of Freed opens with the wedding of Ana and Christian Grey. This would be the climax to many, many romantic sagas, which almost by definition makes everything that follows anti-climactic.
Over the course of three films, the second of which I very smartly missed, Christian has traveled a very predictable, preordained arc from glowering, angry, controlling narcissist who cannot be vulnerable or let people close to him for fear of being hurt, to a glowering, angry, slightly less controlling narcissist who is willing to be just vulnerable enough to not come off a total sociopath. A partial sociopath? Sure. A cold, clammy, unlikeable, unsexy jerk you want to punch in his smug fucking face literally every second he's onscreen? Of course, but here he comes off, at most, as a partial sociopath. That, friends, is what we call character growth.
So if Christian and Ana are married, and still enjoying lots of freaky fuck-fests in the play room, then what the hell could the final two hours of the six-hour, three-part 50 Shades of Grey saga possibly be about? 50 Shades of Grey is fundamentally about how unbelievably awesome it must be to have the power and money and privilege to do absolutely anything you want, whether that means flying all your friends and family to Italy because you have a hankering for Ravioli, or dashing off in a helicopter for a glamorous vacation on a moment’s notice.
50 Shades of Grey is a financial and lifestyle fantasy above all else. The 50 Shades of Grey aesthetic is money. Every helicopter shot of an impossibly expensive-looking architectural marvel screams, “Look how expensive this all is! Can you even imagine how much this all cost? Can you even imagine what it would be like to live like these people, to never have to think about money beyond contemplating the limitless possibilities of what you can do with that kind of a fortune?”
But 50 Shades Freed is, somewhat preposterously, also a thriller. A shitty, shitty Cinemax-ready thriller. It’s 50 Shades: SVU when Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Ana’s former boss, vows revenge on Ana and Christian for getting him fired for trying to sexually assault her.
Hyde’s hatred of Christian is class, money and resentment-based. In a subplot handled with all the sophistication and subtlety of Birdemic, it clumsily emerges that Jack was actually in the same Foster Home as Christian as a young boy back in Michigan, where they undoubtedly both became hardcore Juggalos, although that's never explicitly established in the film itself. When a rich family adopted Christian instead of Jack, it drove the future editor mad with revenge and made him want to destroy Christian for living the life he felt was owed to him.
Jack has to be less appealing and charismatic than Christian, which sets the bar awfully low. How boring and forgettable is Dornan in these movies? I've recently spent four hours watching Dornan play an iconic character in a multi-billion dollar film trilogy based on blockbuster, ubiquitous books and if I were to see Dornan in a movie again I would be shocked if I remembered him. At all. At most, I'd find myself thinking, "Why does that guy look so familiar? Did I go to school with him or something? Does he frequent the Gathering?"
If the filmmakers had cast someone like Idris Elba as Christian Grey the film would instantly become ten times more convincing and compelling. Then I'd understand why Ana would be obsessed enough with him to let him get away with being a huge asshole. Then I'd understand Ana being in sexual thrall to him. But no, the filmmakers instead opted for a charisma-free, instantly forgettable underwear model. Who has all the acting chops of a former underwear model.
In comedy clubs, managers sometimes give comedians a “Wrap it up” signal to let them know when they need to get offstage. I wish for the life of me I had a magical “wrap it up” button that I could use on this trilogy. It’s insane to me that there are now six hours of 50 Shades of Grey films to be seen in addition to the days upon days of 50 Shades of Grey literature also available for public consumption. And that’s not even touching upon the hours upon hours of Twilight movies and books that inspired 50 Shades of Grey, and Marlon Wayans' parody 50 Shades of Black.
Late in 50 Shades Freed we get a montage I like to call “The highlight reel.” You’re undoubtedly familiar with it. It pops up deep into the third act of a lot of lazy romantic comedies and dramas and features protagonists dreamily reflecting back upon their history with their lover through a selectively edited montage of seminal moments in their relationship, beginning with those first shy, tentative flirtatious smiles and ending with the present.
There’s something undeniably manipulative and disingenuous about the “highlight reel.” It’s as if the filmmaker is telling us, “My, but these characters have been on quite a journey! From those stormy first glances to marriage, children and everything else, they’ve had quite the adventure, and we, the audience, have been there with them every step of the way. Why, you might even say this is our love story as much as it is the lead characters'!”
Good movies do not need highlight reels. They are invariably a mark of desperation from filmmakers who feel a need to underline just how perfect their lovers are for one another, and what a wonderful journey of self-discovery they have shared because that sure does not emerge organically from the action.
The highlight reel montage in 50 Shades of Freed may be cynical and unearned but I appreciated it anyway because it meant that the end of the film was rapidly approaching. If nothing else, this highlight reel is a reassuring sign that the film is nearly over, and with it a trilogy that never should have existed in the first place.
The “highlight reel” is supposed to boast a cumulative power from all of the time we’ve spent following these characters. This is where our emotional investment is supposed to pay off, as we’re overcome with Pavlovian/Proustian jolts of pleasure from seeing the love story at the film’s core play out in miniature.
Instead, I felt an overwhelming, overpowering emptiness not unlike when I graduated from high school and all I could think was, “My God, I’ve spent so much time in this awful, awful place and none of it meant anything. None of it.”
That’s how I felt about the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. I had spent so much time immersing myself in the basic, boring, Becky sex life of two characters I honestly cared about so little that it would not matter to me in the least if they were both killed and all I got out of the experience, beyond two articles and two podcast segments, I suppose, is that feeling of emptiness, that awful pit in the stomach you get when you realize that you’ve completely wasted a substantial amount of time and got nothing out of the exchange.
Oh well. Despite beginning life as fan fiction and introducing kink to the American tentpole blockbuster, the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy is goddamned waste in every sense.
My only consolation is that the series is finally over, and I won’t have to suffer through any subsequent installments. In 50 Shades of Grey a young woman finds unimaginable heights of pleasures in the depths of pain but the film adaptation offers hours upon hours of pain (primarily in the form of excruciating boredom) of an all too imaginable and predictable variety.
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Wanna hear me and Clint jibber-jabber about 50 Shades of Grey and 50 Shades Freed (but NOT that pieces of shit movie 50 Shades Darker) on Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast? Then you can here