They laughed. The audience laughed at much of the "serious" dialogue in 50 Shades of Grey. They sat patiently through pretty tame sex acts — that ice-cube thing is sooo 1980s — then laughed some more. And when the film ended, they howled, because — and you should know this upfront — the film simply stops, its meager plot unresolved. Call it cinema interruptus, and know that further commitment (reputedly, two more films) is required.
One commitment I never made was reading E.L. James' wildly popular eponymous book, though I'd heard plenty about this "mommy porn," in which a virginal college student with the hilariously bad name of Anastasia Steele enters into an S&M relationship with a super-rich dominant dude named Christian Grey.
So like everybody else, I was wondering just how director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) would tackle the "edgy" material for a mainstream R-rated release. If you want to see something kinky via a respectable medium, save your money for HBO; there is nothing here viewers haven't seen in a 1980s sexy thriller (butts, boobs and back-arching), except for that Apple laptop (sadly, not used in bondage play).
And without the titillating aspect — maybe it's an unmentioned fetish, but during the sexy scenes, Mr. Grey kept his pants on a lot — the lean and ludicrous plot is thrown into sharp relief. Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and Grey (Jamie Dornan, from The Fall) meet cute a couple of times, including a cringey scene in the hardware store where Ana works; the dapper zillionaire orders cable ties, masking tape and rope. As you do. Then begins an increasingly tedious courtship, in which tepid sex scenes break up the somewhat more interesting bondage-contract negotiations.
I can dig Taylor-Johnson's impulse to rescue the skeeviness of the set-up — wealthy guy emotionally and financially manipulates naïve woman into a submissive and potentially violent sexual relationship — by giving Ana some agency, and Johnson brings a welcome feistiness to the role. But the tactic misguidedly underscores the "serious" romance aspect of 50 Shades, when a more satisfying take on the material would have loaded up the camp.
How can I take seriously a wounded hero — "I'm 50 shades of fucked up!" Grey cried in anguish, and we all laughed — when he lives in what looks like a hotel lobby and can't stop flying planes and helicopters? (His occupation seems to be simply: having a huge office.) Or dear Ana, who can't stop putting Mr. Grey's pencil in her mouth? Or a bondage room that looks like a fancy cigar bar, all rich wood and red drapes? Or a film that mistakes ridiculous for romantic? Look, we all know 50 Shades is a zeitgeisty piece of trash, and we're OK wallowing in that. Set us free!