Two years ago, director Sam Taylor-Johnson had the unenviable task of turning Fifty Shades of Grey, an instant piece of pop culture ridicule, into a film. And in addition to being boxed in by author E.L. James’ ludicrous smut, the movie was further restrained by the MPAA’s own clinching bonds, limiting the exploitation of said smut. The results did not end well. For anyone. We wound up with a lousy date movie that tried to make a sincere romance out of erotica filler.
Fifty Shades Darker doesn’t even try.
Don’t let the title fool you. The only thing darkened about this sequel of sex toys and scam-lasciviousness is the already fairly dimmed enthusiasm expressed by stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. Last time, their chemistry was anemic, but now they share a mutually burning apathy for their paper thin characters and a palpable chagrin that audiences could possibly want to see them do it all again with even less conviction. Because there is no particular story here, just a skeletal framework to connect bedroom scenes that appear as perfunctory as the ‘splosions in a Michael Bay movie… and with just about as much sensuality too.
Lacking much in the way of a formal plot, Fifty Shades Darker essentially introduces three mildly diverting conflicts and, instead of building on them with rising action, it lethargically addresses each in disconnected scenes about 90 minutes later.
The first and worst is that Anastasia Steele (Johnson) has a new boss in the publishing world, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). A skeevier version of the Jacob third wheel from its Twilight inspiration, Hyde has amusingly awful tête–à–têtes with Christian, including dialogue gems like “I’m the boyfriend,” followed by Jack’s scathing comeback, “I’m the boss.” Jack turns out to be exactly the kind of pervert one would expect in this kind of movie (or aboard Access Hollywood vans). This is developed and solved in a second scene in which Christian and his bodyguard save the day.
The next conflict, and probably the best in the film, is that of a former “submissive” from Christian’s past (one of his ex-contracted sex slaves). Bella Heathcote’s Leila, scorned and forgotten, is stalking Anastasia out of jealousy. Think Bryce Dallas Howard’s Twilight character here. This “plot” thread also goes nowhere when it is introduced and then solved over an hour later by Christian and his bodyguard—but at least this solution is just debauched enough to raise a few questions that a truly kinky movie would explore. But this ain’t it.
And then there’s the fact that Christian can’t quite kick his bondage addiction because he was abused as a teen by family friend Elena (Kim Basinger). However, since he and Anastasia are jumping on each other like sea otters inside of 20 minutes, it’s not so much a conflict as an extended montage of them going to costume parties or on yachting trips, before Christian later turns to her with anal beads and asks Ana to lick them and then bend over.
This is not a movie. Not really. A film actually has some kind of structure or point-of-view, or at least something to say, even if it is the aforementioned Michael Bay’s emphatic, “Do you like explosions?” Despite director James Foley having helmed the immeasurable Glengarry Glen Ross a near lifetime ago, he is here asked to merely set up the camera, make sure it’s in focus, that the proper licensed pop tune begins when the clothes rip, and to otherwise dutifully get out of the way while executing Niall Leonard’s insipid screenplay. For the record, Leonard is the husband of Fifty Shades author E.L. James and the film reads like any other fan fiction you might have come across: derivative, meandering, and hopelessly overlong.
Running at 118 minutes, Fifty Shades Darker is a nearly interminable viewing experience. It has nothing to say and it’s not nearly as scandalous as it thinks it is. Whereas the first film had the naughty appeal of a Victoria’s Secret commercial with a snippet of nudity for the more conservative American audiences, this picture doubles the number of sex scenes, toys, and actual nudity, but is so banal about it that no amount of nipple clamps or knives should have stopped the editor from being as equally brutal with his cutting.
Dornan is as reliably expressionless as ever as Christian Grey, a character set on one default: the smoldering brood. Meanwhile, Johnson is an affable presence and with the right material might one day prove she has real talent, but when saddled with Ana, she only can sell lines that deride the dumbness of it all. “Christian, sex isn’t going to solve this right now.”
The film does deserve mild credit for casting Kim Basinger as the dominating presence in Christian’s life since Basinger starred in other erotic thrillers during the 1980s. But those films were pushing taboo lines in pop culture at that time, and Fifty Shades Darker is closer in temperament to the nighttime soap operas of the Reagan Years, like Dynasty (right down to glasses of water getting thrown in a woman’s face), than it is 9 ½.
Ultimately, Fifty Shades plays like a story by an author (or her husband) who thinks she’s writing a sequel to Rhett and Scarlett’s troubles after Gone with the Wind ends. But in addition to Christian and Anastasia’s romance needing even less continuation than those damn folks at Tara, it actually is a fan fiction unto itself. It spins its wheels and goes nowhere, padding the word count and runtime with faux-eroticism that is never that erotic.
And the worst part is that there is going to be a third one. What’s left to say?! Anastasia and Christian buy a puppy, and then get ideas while shopping for collars? At least then, we’d know there’d be some bite.