Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
It’s only been five years since the FIFTY SHADES OF GREY phenomenon entered our zeitgeist. What was quickly labelled “mommy porn,” turned into a best seller and a box office juggernaut, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. For a series whose humble beginnings were as TWILIGHT chat room fan fiction, director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film elevated the novel from a trashy guilty pleasure, to legitimate cinema. Director James Foley’s sequel, FIFTY SHADES DARKER, takes thing right back down the garbage chute again. With clunky dialogue, leads with hot looks but again no chemistry, and an excessively stupid building mystery, Foley’s slavishly faithful adaptation is the best unintentional comedy of the year – and the most maddening one too.
Bad dreams from billionaire businessman Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) childhood haunt him at night, but during the day, he wastes the hours pining for lady love Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). She’s begun a new empowered life as an assistant at a Seattle publishing house. Her boss, Jack Hyde (Dan Stevens knock-off Eric Johnson), violates every HR protocol possible by ogling her on day one – so you know where that’s gonna go. Anyways, Ana is lonely without Christian and it’s only a matter of time she lets him back in – only this time she’s the one calling the shots. But as she’s teaching Christian how to be human boyfriend material, Ana’s confronted by women from his past – a distraught head case (Bella Heathcoate) and an experienced older woman (Kim Basinger) – and it’s on her to learn how to deal with envy and anger.
Jealousy. Anger. Envy. I don’t think I need to say it, but here we are: these are not good building blocks for a healthy relationship – at least the kind Ana is demanding from her billionaire bae. Because of author E.L. James’ problematic source material and control over the adaptation of it, the first film did BDSM wrong and this one does too, while at the same time trying to dig its heels into some sort of feminist machinations. James, and her husband screenwriter Niall Leonard, think they’ve created a stronger relationship for the couple, but really it’s just more of the same. It’s still an abusive relationship dressed up as fantasy. Christian continues to stalk Ana, alienate her from her co-workers, get mad when any man looks at her, doesn’t respect her wants or career aspirations and generally exerts his authority over her. She may rebel, but she always returns. He says “You’re mine” as he sticks his hand in her bahjingo, essentially literally puppeting her response of, “I’m yours.” Listen, she’s just as bad, forcing him to deny the side of himself that enjoys “The Red Room of Pain” shenanigans. Cribbing the fancy dinner panty removal scene from SLIVER plays as derivative slop – as is the DYNASTY-esque drink toss and the EMPIRE-esque slap – simply because none of these actions sizzle. Worst of all, there’s nothing compelling about the plot or the sex.
That said, the filmmakers have at least have given us more camp to laugh at in this chapter. Ladies and gay men! They’ve heard your cries and doubled down on a shirtless Dornan. Not only do we get a COLOR OF NIGHT-ish application of lipstick on his chest, we also get a female gaze-y workout sequence. The Ben Wa balls scene in the lingerie closet is playful and funny enough as it made me think of SEINFELD’s “The panties your mother laid out for you.” It also made me sob a little thinking someone got paid to write, “It doesn’t go in your butt.” Hyde’s evolution can be charted in his almost innocuous oral fixations (from, e-cigs to real cigarettes). There’s a certain pleasure derived from the irony of seeing Basinger’s elite hairdresser character sport a constantly messy coif.
Despite what they’re aiming for in the scene, Johnson’s timing on her line, “Whoa,” will have everyone in stitches. And God bless the seemingly downtrodden production designer (Nelson Coates) and art directors (Peter Bodnarus, Craig Humphries and Jeremy Stanbridge) who placed that CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK poster as a welcomed, focus-pulling distraction when we all needed it the most. It’s when you can actually see them give up. There’s also a sweet, comically large wink-and-nod to WORKING GIRL. But this ain’t working, girl.
Unlike the first film, there’s nothing genuinely redeeming about this. No skill or artistry involved in its craft. No keen insight into a world we only dare enter. This sequel is workmanlike in execution and a look at a fairly vanilla relationship – a conservative’s wet dream, if you will. You only wonder if the third film, FIFTY SHADES FREED (whose tease plays in the middle of the credits), will portray Ana and Christian as a domesticated couple who’ve gotten “relationship fat” and spend their nights on the couch, watching garbage people on Bravo. Now that would be taboo.
FIFTY SHADES DARKER opens on February 10.