When Scary Movie came out back in 2000, some remarked that the sleeper hit horror parody was spoofing a satire by drawing inspiration and iconography from Scream, which Wes Craven intended as a trope-riddled satire of the genre. Nevertheless, four sequels and a slew of other parody movies (mostly by ‘two of the six writers’, Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg) followed and have served to run the art of cinematic parody into the ground over the last 15 years.
Fifty Shades Of Black hasn’t been anywhere near as big a hit for co-writer and star Marlon Wayans as Scary Movie was, although it’s arguably in a similar situation as that first breakout hit. Many of us (this reviewer included) felt that last year’s E.L. James adaptation Fifty Shades Of Grey was already hilarious by accident, despite and even because of its self-serious tone.
It’s become the butt of all sorts of jokes in the last 12 months, but the main obstacle for any feature-length parody to conquer would be the high laugh count in the erotic and expensive-looking adventures of Christian Grey and Ana Steele thus far. You’ll either be amused or not that Wayans, co-writer Rick Alvarez and director Michael Tiddes have overcome this by making a complete low-budget remake, faithfully following the story of the original and even mimicking memorably bad line deliveries to a tee, with about 200% more jokes added in.
The IMDb summary of this film could as easily apply to the worldwide blockbuster that inspired it – “an inexperienced college student meets a wealthy businessman whose sexual practices put a strain on their relationship.” Names have been changed to protect the copyrighted (barely – Grey becomes Black, Ana becomes Hannah), but there’s more than enough added meta humour, slapstick and scatological gross-out moments to make sure you won’t confuse the two.
But if you’re familiar with Wayans’ style from the first two Scary Movies and their spiritual successors, A Haunted House and its sequel, you won’t be surprised to discover that, however ripe for parody the material may be, Fifty Shades Of Black reminds you of a hyper-long version of those ‘Greatest Open Goal Fails’ videos you get on YouTube.
A lot of the jokes fall flat, mostly because the editing is choppy and indulgent – Tiddes goes right up to (and sometimes even beyond) having the cast mug for the camera for every over-long, supposedly comedic setpiece. It’s never knowingly underplayed and it has a tendency to repeat itself for emphasis, particularly whenever a character reads out a sight gag – imagine how it would affect the pacing of the comedy if all of those establishing shots of the church on The Simpsons had Homer come outside and read the marquee to you as well.
Worse still, when Black indulges in a little torture with Hannah (Kali Hawk), he actually reads aloud from the book 50 Shades Of Grey and comments on how bad the writing is, which isn’t funny and should be redundant in an entire movie about how silly 50 Shades Of Grey is. See also, Affion Crockett’s turn as Black’s brother, who is an impression of The Weeknd in all but name, just so that they can get in a jab at his Oscar-nominated contribution to the Grey soundtrack, Earned It.
In fact, a lot of the deviations from the story of the compromised Sam Taylor-Johnson adaptation scan as bad stand-up rather than dialogue, over-stuffed with instantly dated references to Donald Trump, Bill Cosby and Kim Kardashian. At one point, there’s a Ronda Rousey joke that was out-of-date before the film even landed in US cinemas in January.
At its worst, it’s mystifyingly bad. The bad is obvious and the mystification comes from wondering how the hell they got Jane Seymour to be in this as Christian’s adoptive mother, doing nothing but dispensing tired racist invective while Wayans pulls exasperated faces at his own dialogue.
But when you throw this much shit at the wall, some of it has to stick, and reconfiguring the original narrative helps to hold focus for longer than most of these movies have managed. There’s an extended reference to Whiplash that I’ll admit to laughing at in spite of myself, but even that makes sense in context – after all, it was the other obsessively sadistic and masochistic movie of the last 12 months. Next to an entirely misjudged segue about Magic Mike that takes a long walk for a short punchline (or – spoiler alert – a very short prosthetic dick), it looks masterful.
More importantly, if there’s one thing that Wayans excels at as an actor, it’s making himself look silly and that’s what a blunt caricature like Christian Black requires. An average scene, repeated throughout the film, will start with him essaying Jamie Dornan’s stilted delivery before breaking for the joke, apparently unable to resist shouting or gurning. It’s rarely as funny as they think it is, but as an overall lampooning of the humourless cock-a-tron that Dornan didn’t bring to life, it’s mostly effective, especially when the story finally veers from the original.
This also observes an outstanding problem with Grey, whose unequal treatment of the two leads was noted by viewers and reviewers at the time of release. Dornan didn’t have to go through the same full frontal exposure as Dakota Johnson did, and Wayans et al do set out to rectify that, rather than just point it out. Wayans is in the cross-hairs, while Hawk steals the spotlight.
There’s still not a whole lot of risk in taking easy shots at low hanging fruit, but given how the film develops from endless riffs on Hannah’s looks and hygiene early on to continually showing up Black and ultimately correcting the flaccid cliffhanger ending of Grey, it proves to have more satirical bite, and even something of a plot arc, than the rest of the film would lead you to expect.
Coming 12 months after the stilted original, Fifty Shades Of Black isn’t wholly redundant, but it is yet another scattershot parody movie, which offers few pleasures and misses far more often than it hits. Wayans tweeted after the film’s opening weekend in America that this is his last parody movie, and while it’s hardly a redemptive effort on which to end a less than illustrious passage of cinematic history, the last ten minutes or so ensure that he finishes strong.
The film’s gurning self-awareness and savvy is the complete opposite of the source material, but this sequence at least shows that they have an interesting opinion on it. Given the juvenile standard of the humour elsewhere, it may be as unintentionally satirical as Grey is unintentionally funny, but the actual finale is strong enough to give it the benefit of the doubt in that regard. It’s just unfortunate that it’s so aimlessly puerile in everything else.
Fifty Shades Of Black is in UK cinemas now.
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