To no one’s surprise, the third and final adaptation of E.L. James’ bodice-rippers promises steam, but delivers vapor.
The Fifty Shades of Grey franchise is at once one of the most baffling smash hits in pop culture, and also the most understandable. E.L. James, adapting her AU Twilight fanfiction (once more for the people in the back: Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele were originally written as Edward and Bella) to a series of best-selling novels, struck a nerve with the pre-Kindle-erotica phase of ladies’ lit club culture. They’re sexy, titillating bodice-rippers salacious enough for everyone’s moms to share in hushed whispers, while not being so well-written as to be actually challenging. That being said, their appeal (and that of their film adaptations) continues to baffle me, though perhaps that comes with not having actually seen one of these before. Fifty Shades Freed is the first Fifty Shades movie I’ve seen, and much to my horror, it will not be the last.
Picking up from the rope-and-chains soap opera of Fifty Shades Darker, submissive ingenue Ana (Dakota Johnson) and goggle-eyed billionaire beefcake Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) are now married, their honeymoon consisting of a marathon of luxury-porn trips to Paris, nude sunbathing, and handcuff-centric yacht sex. Unfortunately, they’re drawn back early by the specter of their nemesis, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) – which I kid you not, is an actual name of a character in this film – who seeks to take back what he feels Ana and Christian stole from him. What could that be? I don’t know, I didn’t see the first two, and the film is completely unconcerned with catching up new followers.
The stuff with Hyde is just melodramatic window dressing, and his increasingly disturbed behavior as he tries to kidnap and blackmail Anastasia throughout the film is just trumped-up thriller fodder to keep the film’s languid pace moving. The meat of the film’s drama, such as it is, involves Ana’s increasingly assertive role in their relationship (previously defined by kinky master-slave dynamics), as she begins to, as Christian hilariously sums it up, “top from the bottom.”
Even with threats as mild as holding onto her maiden name and refusing to “run the household,” Ana’s bare-minimum pushbacks against the patently misogynist nature of Christian’s domineering are way less interesting than screenwriter Niall Leonard and director James Foley (who directed the previous one, oh and also Glengarry Glen Ross!) thinks they are, and Lord knows they don’t write or film them dynamically enough to pull our interest. Johnson does her best to gin up some charisma for her deeply boring character, sneaking some intensity and humor into Ana’s flat affect, but Dornan’s bug-eyed billionaire is just an obnoxious, childlike twerp who whines, complains and lashes out when he doesn’t get his way. (The series links his kinks to childhood traumas, which seems a bit misguided for a movie supposedly meant as BDSM 101.)
And, of course, there’s the fucking (or lack thereof), which is the film’s major disappointment. For a series whose central appeal is ostensibly pushing sexual taboos, Freed is shockingly chaste. I don’t recall a single sex scene being shown in its entirety, save a passenger-seat quickie that laughably comes after the couple loses a pursuing Hyde in a car chase. The stuff we do get is less kinky than it is hilariously campy, like some improvised ice-cream play in an Aspen guest house or a pearl-clutching convo about butt plugs. The overwrought doing-it mix doesn’t do the sex scenes any favors, laying on a heavy slather of R&B oomph so thick you’ll be laughing too hard to get aroused. Even the infamous Red Room barely gets any play, since Freed has mistaken our endurance of the plot with actual interest in it. Freed insists we care about Ana and Christian’s deep love instead, which is its biggest mistake.
The worst offense is the film’s reticence to hang dong: Dornan’s D is disappointingly out-of-frame for most of the action, Foley cutting and framing around it so delicately you’d think we weren’t watching a movie about boning. Sure, he (and Johnson) get plenty of exposed butt time, and no shortage of excuses to get their shirts off, and sulk in Christian’s Shower of Deep Contemplation, but that does not a sex movie make. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the ways marriage arguably slows down your love life, but as presented, it’s just a disappointing tease for the audience.
For what it’s worth, I do recognize glimmers of agency and empowerment in Johnson’s increasingly defiant performance of Ana. Christian’s sidelining as a character firmly places this entry in Johnson’s hands, the film being more about a woman discovering and defining her needs, wants and boundaries in a romantic and sexual relationship, and there are some baseline thrills at seeing her take control of her sex life. One can argue for a mild transgressiveness to this film in that regard, especially since there are so few films that allow women to be sexually active (and proactive), especially against a man so privileged with wealth, power and good looks that it’s ridiculous. In this respect, I’m willing to give the film points, but I’d much rather there be more films out there that are racier, bolder, and more innovative with their sex-positive female leads than let this film off on technicalities.
At 100 minutes, Freed is the shortest of the three, which is a blessing, because I’m struggling to find reasons why this would appeal. It looks and feels like what it is: an adaptation of badly-written, deeply sexist erotica focused more on misunderstood kink culture and luxury porn than it is anything truly compelling. It doesn’t even deliver on the cheap thrills it promises – as an erotic thriller, it’s decidedly unerotic, and its upper-class intrigue is as paper-thin as its characters. In the end, the epic of Ana and Christian ends up being just as boring as the vanilla sex lives of its target audience: safe, dull, risk-free, with the promise of marriage and family life as a misguided fix to Christian’s psychological hangups. I, for one, am glad this era is over; maybe the audience for Fifty Shades will get something that might actually challenge them.
Fifty Shades Freed opens in theaters Friday, February 9th.