Some franchises end with grace and humility, finding a resolution to their characters’ shared journey that leaves fans satisfied that they even took those first steps with them; others overstay their welcome and limp across a finish line after a point at which no one cares anymore; and then there’s Fifty Shades Freed, the final film in the infamous (and maybe beloved?) Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. This film neither ends with a bang or a whimper—although there is plenty of both such things onscreen. More simply, and like all the narrative threads told across three films, it just unspools with the elegance of a tangled rope that won’t unknot, yet is still happy to wallow on its red leather couch, ignorant to all the exciting and unused tools at its disposal.
But at least for Fifty Shades Freed, this film is aware of its disposability, and for the first time in three installments, it embraces its ridiculousness and silliness. So in the end, maybe this really is the series’ grace note?
After director Sam Taylor-Johnson tried and failed to turn a cultural punchline into an epic love story in the first film, and helmer James Foley and screenwriter Niall Leonard presented a ghastly second movie, Fifty Shades Freed is the most at home in its own skin. It’s aware that audiences are going to snicker at its pronouncements of romance, or at the idea that Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey has a habit of being an uber-possessive douchebag, and it is willing to poke fun at that. The story is still beige wish fulfillment that is absolutely impotent at creating tension or a rising sense of stakes, yet it still tries to offer a fun night out with what little it has to work with.
Right from the start, the film makes no bones about why we’re all here. Before the opening credits are even over, Christian and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) have stumbled through their wedding vows and are already off on a romantic honeymoon in Paris and the South of France. They’re also in a bedroom completely devoid of toys—at least until she disobeys him about not covering up at a chic nude beach. Weddings are nice, but it’s in the confines of nickel plated handcuffs that Fifty Shades imagines romance.
Eventually the newlyweds make it back home to Seattle, but they never stop cruising. When they return, Ana has discovered she received a promotion while gone, and Christian then whisks her away from work twice throughout the week to show her the perfect mansion he’s bought and then to spend a long weekend in Aspen, complete with bathtubs overlooking the scenery and late night kitchen rendezvous. Sprinkled throughout these steamy travelogues, there is some humorously inept drama about Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) stalking Christian and Ana, convinced Christian owes him for trapping him inside his daytime soap opera motivations, and then Christian is an outright asshole in how he reacts to Ana revealing she’s pregnant. “I don’t want to share you,” he howls before leaving to go get drunk.
But really the point is to either lust or laugh at when they enter the couple’s shared Red Room of Pain. Frequently. One shudders at imagining what their nursery décor is going to soon be.
Fifty Shades Freed is every bit as devoid of amour and allure as its predecessors. This is a series that considers comparing girlfriends to a photo of your dead mother a form of foreplay, and menacing demands of subservience a game of endearing courtship. Such stilted awkwardness remains present in Foley and Leonard’s final rendering of this lame love story too.
At certain points Christian barges into Anastasia’s place of work to command her to change her name from Ms. Steele to Mrs. Grey at the office, and his reaction to discovering she is pregnant should be enough to cause most people to go running for the hills—or at least the Bugatti. However, Fifty Shades knowingly tweaks the absurdity this time, allowing the film to be in on the joke during the waves of derisive laughter.
When her bodyguards pin down the first of her inept stalkers in this film, they realize they have nothing to tie him up with until Anastasia quickly blushes, “We do.” Dornan’s Grey is still creepily controlling, but the film now concedes there is something vaguely humorous about him intensely glaring at Ana while she sleeps, silently contemplating new punishments for her disobedience. Unlike his Edward Cullen forebear, Grey’s final movie can accept that he’s a monster.
As such, any moment that allows Johnson and Dornan to flash some eye-rolls at the material is relieving, because the duo’s chemistry maintains a lukewarm simmer. There is, however, a familiarity at this point when they attempt to make something approximating “love;” there’s even a sense of camaraderie, if not companionship. It’s almost a silent prayer between them that, God willing, they’ll get through this thing together.
The movie is at the end of the day a wish fulfillment fantasy, and as the couple jet around the world, to either Europe or Colorado, they do so with bottles of champagne always open or with a nice Mercedes waiting for them upon their arrival. Even being stalked by a mysterious SUV means they get to speed and then speed up to a post-escape tryst in a parking lot.
Foley tries to make the sex scenes less repetitive (not that he succeeds) with some crosscuts between punishment and morning after revelry here, or some ice cream-smeared foreplay there. Yet when this reviewer is left to wonder whether Ben & Jerry’s would want to pay for that kind of product placement, it likely is not having the intended effect. (Seriously though, was there a discussion of should they be lathering each other in “Chunky Monkey” or “The Tonight Dough?”)
But I and most of my critical peers are not the intended audience. As the movie unfurled its spoils across our screen, there were echoes of contemptuous laughter throughout the theater—albeit less so than with the previous film. But nothing we write is going to stop its intended audience from seeing or even enjoying this guilty gruesomeness.
Out there is an audience ready to sincerely embrace the sight of Jamie Dornan badly crooning mid-2000s pop ballads on a piano as something approaching tender artfulness. And for everyone else there is ice cream sex. At the end of the day, Fifty Shades of Grey is over, and it actually ends in this film on a shockingly genuine sweet note of kink and love. If nothing else, it was here as a major part of our culture, and totally recast its inspiration, Twilight, into the new role of not being the worst thing to come out of popular fiction. So mazel tov, Ana and Christian. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out, unless you’re into that sort of thing.