Lukewarm Takes: 50 Shades of Grey
There was a time when my love of film was inextricably intertwined with my raging teen hormones and desperate need to look at naked boobs. That time was called adolescence. When I was fourteen, films taught me about life and were an essential, constant companion and source of comfort and escape. But they were a naked boobs-delivery system above all else.
The fourteen year old Nathan, consequently, would have started to get excited about something like the 50 Shades of Grey cinematic trilogy (what a grandiose phrase for such a negligible creative accomplishment) the moment he learned of its existence. I then would have diligently tracked its existence through each phase of production, and made sure to see it as early as possible. The film’s release would have been a bona fide pop culture event on the level of Showgirls, another film that tested the boundaries of what American studio films could show in terms of sexual content but that has the added benefit of being a transcendent masterpiece.
The thirty-nine year old me had a much different response to the 50 Shades of Grey literary and cinematic phenomenon. I was in no hurry to see these smutty paperbacks brought to lurching, lurid life through the power of Hollywood greed. In fact, I was totally prepared to skip the entire trilogy until my Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast partner Clint suggested that we tackle it for the podcast for Valentine’s Day out of a sad lack of anything better and more worthwhile to see and talk about.
Having now devoted 120 precious, precious minutes of my life to 50 Shades of Grey and a few hours more to writing this article, not to mention the time I’ll spend covering 50 Shades Freed in a few short hours, I’m thinking I should have listened to the voice inside my head that said these movies were not anything I needed to bother with.
The closest I’ve come to watching or writing about 50 Shades of Grey was covering the Marlon Wayans parody 50 Shades of Black for Control Nathan Rabin. Wayans’ parody hews very closely to its inspiration, to the point of being almost a scene by scene parody. So watching 50 Shades of Grey after 50 Shades of Black was like hearing a pop song for the first time after becoming familiar with the “Weird Al” Yankovic parody. Which is better, 50 Shades of Grey or 50 Shades of Black? Let’s just say they’re both terrible! Just the fucking worst.
Second (or third generation) sex star Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith (Body Double) and Don Johnson (The Hot Spot) and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren (whose movie impressive credit, to be honest is for The Birds) stars as Anastasia Steele, who is essentially Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That and the ilk: a gorgeous looker whose stunning beauty is ineptly hid by an unflattering hairstyle and clothes that do absolutely nothing for her figure. She bites her lip and mumbles but underneath her semi-mousy exterior lies a lusty, erotic powerhouse just waiting to be unleashed.
Anastasia is stumbling her way through college when her life changes forever when she somewhat preposterously is called upon to pinch-hit and interview 27-year-old mogul Christian Grey after her roommate snagged ten minutes of one on one time with the ruthless businessman but got sick the day of the interview.
The virginal beauty flirts awkwardly with the steely-eyed, faintly sociopathic-seeming Grey whose defining characteristics seem to be his complete lack of anything that could generously be deemed a sense of humor as well as his lack of a personality beyond “asshole business guy.”
The older man is besotted by Ana’s vulnerable beauty and trembling innocence and begins to pursue a sexual relationship with her he insists must proceed along the same guidelines and parameters as all of his other flings, with him as the dominant partner and her as a willing, turned-on submissive.
In order for 50 Shades of Grey to work as drama or as soft-core pornography we need to be in erotic thrall to the actor playing Christian Grey. He must be so irresistibly sexy and such a force of nature that we’re willing to follow him anywhere, even down down dark and murky and masochistic streets, where pleasure meets pain and pain becomes pleasure.
Instead we’re given a Christian Grey who is cold and controlling, bullying yet weirdly asexual. At various times Christian tells Ana, who is barely out of her teens and tentatively exploring her sexuality for the first time, “If you were mine, you wouldn’t sit down for a week”, “I don’t make love. I fuck. hard” and “I would like to fuck you into the middle of next week” with such gross, date-rapist aggression that I genuinely thought that it’d be revealed that he was doing more of his stupid tests, and that if she responded to such jockish displays of lust with enthusiasm or excitement he’d retreat but nope, 50 Shades of Grey seems to think Christian angrily growling those things while ogling Ana like a piece of meat he’s about to devour is sexy, and will turn on the audience in addition to getting Ana’s motor running.
It's not an encouraging sign when a legendarily sexy character's sordid come-ons prompt a visceral, intuitive response of, "Oh yuck, God no!", which was my response to Christian at the beginning of the trilogy, and also at the end. At least he's consistent in that regard.
A sexy movie can make anything sensual. A movie like 50 Shades of Grey can’t make anything sexy, including its large amount of sex. The film makes safely transgressively Kosher semi-kink seem both boring and un-sexy.
50 Shades of Grey feels like Secretary reimagined as an L.L Bean catalog. Which is frustrating because it has a real star in Johnson, who gives her underwritten character a magnetic combination of trembling, girlish vulnerability and steely backbone. The hoary “subversion” of 50 Shades of Grey is that despite her position as a sexual submissive, she’s the one with power in the relationship and the ability to liberate and save Christian from his darkness. That 50 Shades of Grey works on any level is a testament to Johnson, particularly since she’s operating in a vacuum.
This movie needs for Christian and Ana’s sexual chemistry to be so explosive that it pushes a good girl past the limits of propriety and into an underworld of sensual ecstasy but Christian’s appeal utterly alludes me. I mean I get it: he’s rich. He’s cut. He plays the piano and inhabits a world of wealth and power and privilege but is this really what people find sexually exciting? A dating-reality competition underwear model Prince with a sadistic side? This is what got undiscriminating readers of the world to take a walk on the wild side and dabble in the most boring, most vanilla major studio exploration of the world of kink since Rosie O’Donnell and Dan Ackroyd strapped on the leather gimp gear for depraved kink kingpin Garry Marshall’s Exit to Eden?
Out of respect for Marshall’s memory people don’t mention this, but Marshall had such a profound and revelatory experience making Exit to Eden that all of his subsequent films had huge subplots involving bonding, sadomasochism and sexual role play that were cut out at the last minute. The original cut of the Princess Diaries 2: The Royal Engagement was X-rated, three hours long and filled with a lot of pornographic footage that has nothing to do with the rest of the film.
I kept thinking about the Cult of Trump and our swooning deification of swaggering billionaire alpha-males while watching 50 Shades of Grey because Christian is exactly the kind of womanizing, controlling sex God Trump sees himself as. But I also thought about the billionaire playboy in the White House because the film’s fetishization of deal-making and contracts and getting everything hammered out as clearly as possible before Ana and Christian can enter what is legally known as the “Bone Zone” made me feel like I was watching an erotic adaptation of The Art of the Deal covering some of the Donald’s “secret” deals with various Eastern European models who may or may not be underage sex slaves.
50 Shades of Grey has no sense of humor about itself or sex. Any movie about sex that does not acknowledge, on any level, that sex is funny and weird and goofy and embarrassing in addition to exciting and erotic fundamentally misunderstands the essence of boning.
Early in the film, Ana dreamily describes, among his more sensual attributes, Christian being “clean.” It’s supposed to be an adorably, incongruously wholesome adjective for a Dionysian sex God but it ends up describing the character too well.
Christian is clean as in antiseptic. He’s clean as in white and excessively tidy in appearance and manner. Finally he’s clean as in being unforgivably boring.
If Christian and his spotless, orderly world are clean, then give me dirty, dirty, messy fucking any old day of the week.
50 Shades of Grey is tastefully narcotized lifestyle porn for people who think The Bachelor represents the height of romance but wish it contained more spanking and talk of anal and vaginal fisting.
Now that I’m not a film critic anymore, I find myself resenting movies like 50 Shades of Grey for wasting my time and energy and giving me nothing in return. I like to think that every movie and book I read contribute something, however negligible, to my frame of reference and understanding of the world. I’m less Pollyannaish about television but I’m of the mindset that there’s something of value to be gleaned from even the emptiest film and book experiences.
That said, I got nothing out of finally watching 50 Shades of Grey despite its enormous cultural and commercial prominence. It just felt like I wasted two solid hours of my life, my precious, precious life, slogging through an interminable dance of attraction and repulsion from two people I could not possibly bring myself to care about, or be turned on by.
With that in mind I am totally good skipping the second film and hopping right to number three for Scalding Hot Takes. You’ve got to know when to cut your losses. I’m savvy enough to know that in this case at least I’ll want to minimize my pain by avoiding 50 Shades Darker.
You know what, world? My OCD brain is fine with not being a 50 Shades of Grey completist. To be honest, I kind of resent having to even see another one of these cinematic Yankee Candles at all. Hopefully when I see how this iconically boring and basic and Becky romance concludes tomorrow my pain will at least be your pleasure. We gotta at least get something out of this bottomless well of painfully Caucasian tedium.
Join a nice community, get access to Patreon-exclusive content and support independent media over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace It’s painless and enjoyable, we swear.