Early on in "Fifty Shades Darker," the second film adaptation from E.L. James’ trilogy of steamy novels that scorched tablets almost as thoroughly as it scorched the English language, Anastasia Steele tosses Christian Grey a tub of vanilla ice cream during a trip to the most titillating of locales: a grocery store.
They promise each other to be bland and take it slow. But while our leads take all of 10 minutes to bail on their pact, the film unfortunately must’ve been in on the deal, as well – and it is committed to its blandness like a nun to a chastity vow.
Put bluntly: No movie featuring this much fantasy kinky sex between beautiful people should be this boring. Not even that pint of Ben & Jerry’s is at risk from this sequel’s limp, barely lukewarm cinematic steam-heat, its supposedly darker shades more like hues of beige.
"Fifty Shades Darker" opens like all good erotic romances do: with a sequence of domestic abuse. Talk about setting the mood! Sadly, this kind of clumsy and scattershot approach to story is the norm for the script, the product of series newcomer Niall Leonard, making his feature film debut. Might the leap from writing the 2003 TV movie "Horatio Hornblower 3" to writing one of the most popular book adaptations of the year have something to do with being married to the novel’s author? Who could possibly know.
Anyways, the sequel follows Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) as they attempt to get back together after their literally painful goodbye at the end of part one. Christian needs her back – he even buys all of her best friend’s awkward portraits of her to prove it! – but Ana still struggles with his need for control and possession, both when it comes to the bedroom and his troubled past.
It’s a prickly situation – and not just because Mr. Dornan’s babyfaced billionaire has graduated up to a sexy stubble between films. Figures from Christian’s days as a troubled young whippersnapper keep popping up, from his abusive older protégé (Kim Basinger) to an emotionally damaged former submissive (Bella Heathcote, Amazon’s "The Man in the High Castle").
And in case one studly but overly domineering man in her life wasn’t enough, Ana’s new publishing job comes with a genial-turned-jealous boss (Eric Johnson of TV’s "Rookie Blue" and "The Knick") named Jack Hyde – Hyde … I see what you did there – who wants to steal her from Christian, workplace sexual harassment lawsuits be damned.
In charge of feigning control over the melodramatic chaos whipping around "Fifty Shades Darker" are several new faces. In addition to Leonard in the screenwriter’s chair, veteran James Foley – the man behind "Glengarry Glen Ross" (yay!) and "Perfect Stranger" (eeeysh) – takes over directing duties from Sam Taylor-Johnson.
But the most important name is the one returning in front of the camera: Dakota Johnson, the series’ MVP and now its sole redeeming element. Much like in the first film, Johnson takes an airy, flimsy character chained up to an aimless plot and clanging dialogue, and manages to make her into a breathy, flirty, playful delight.
She doesn’t campily wink at the material’s inherently silliness; instead, she uses her offbeat timing and delivery to find the amusingly human awkwardness built into the story. In the rare moments "Fifty Shades Darker" perks to life, she’s the reason why.
Johnson even manages to dredge a bit more warmth from her co-star Dornan, an impressive feat as he’s upgraded chemistry-wise only slightly, from a wooden plank with a suit and a riding crop to a stubbled plank of wood with a suit and a riding crop. Translation: He’s still #NotMyChristian – and therefore still a major problem.
What little actual story there is to tell in "Fifty Shades Darker" centers on being attracted to Christian, a modern day bondage-loving "Beauty and the Beast" tale about a woman’s pure heart and love changing and curing a man of his internal and external emotional torment. But there’s still just no there there – no spark, no heat, no danger to the thawing, seemingly possessive and frankly unhealthy enigma of a partner. The script and direction certainly deserve punishment for making the sultry sex talk simmer with all of the heat of a business merger, but Dornan does it few favors by matching it with the charisma of a tax accountant. And with no chemistry in sight, the audience is stuck wondering why we should root for our lead to fight for this relationship.
If you’re thinking the sex better be worth it, well, it sure isn’t for the viewers stuck watching.
For supposedly the hottest blockbusters Hollywood can muster, these have been two profoundly unsexy movies – especially, I imagine, for the ladies in the audience, who’ve seen plenty of Johnson but exactly no johnson over two films now.
Hell, you have to squint to catch merely a few seconds of Dornan’s shadowy plumber’s crack before Foley, embarrassed and blushing, cuts away. Surprise: As it turns out, the solution to the predecessor’s nudity imbalance was not putting a dude behind the lens.
Even if the nudity duties were erected – er, corrected, I mean – to be more fair, there’s no heat coming off the screen. The sexiness Foley brought to, say, his underrated 2003 con movie "Confidence," is nowhere to be found here – nor is Taylor-Johnson’s warm, sensual tones and clean, cool aesthetic.
What remains is two wet kindling leads blandly rubbing together, creating no sparks, with a CBS-approved level of sheltered housewife kink. It’s pain by numbers, the kind of movie that thinks a blindfold is edgy or that pulls out a nipple clamp to snap on … a finger – all the while aghast and hand-fanning.
Then again, what would one expect from a script that seems ashamed of BDSM culture, that views it as the product of hurt and damaged psyches and something to be overcome or defeated rather than two people mutually finding pleasure.
In the end, the only real pain comes in the awkwardly bad "The Room"-esque pop song needledrops for the sex scenes – a few complete with cheesy guitar riffs to set the mood – and the pleasure that comes from that is not what was intended.
As flaccid as "Fifty Shades Darker" is in the bedroom, it’s even worse outside. Leonard’s unfocused script seems clueless with what to do when it’s not slapping its leads together, resulting in a bunch of scattered subplots that barely develop before they’re quickly pushed out. Heathcote’s stalker gets maybe three scenes of a build-less mystery before getting dispatched off-screen; Basinger and Johnson’s boss character get the same treatment, all creating brief melodramatic tension before our relationship quickly snaps pretty much back to right where we started. It’s repetitive and routine – words that shouldn’t come to mind when talking about a supposedly kinky sex movie.
By the end, the script just throws helicopter crashes and drinks around in the hopes of making the audience feel like something dramatic or noteworthy has happened. But even doing its best impression of a particularly bad episode of "All My Children" – complete with dramatic slaps and martinis to the face – "Fifty Shades Darker" has done nothing to make you care or interested.
I, for instance, spent most of a big dramatic conversation distracted by a bafflingly prominent "Chronicles of Riddick" poster in the background – and generally speaking, when it comes to both sex and movies, if you’re gazing around a room, looking for something to distract or interest you, it’s not going well.
The words "startlingly watchable" often come to mind talking about the first "Fifty Shades of Grey" movie. "Fifty Shades Darker" is startlingly not – an empty film that rarely bothers with basic pleasures like thrilling or titillating, much less spinning a decent romance story. Thanks to Johnson, there's a bit of the first film's self-depreciating humor to cut through the meaningless clutter.
Still, in Foley and Leonard's hands, one's more likely to find accidental comedy – mostly in some impressively long-lasting lipstick body mapping and side characters tossing around meaningful glances that Foley and Leonard seem to have no idea how to interpret (a whole ballad could be written about Anatastia’s photographer friend’s weirdly longing glances).
Even then, audiences seeking out camp will wish they came to "Fifty Shades Darker" with a safeword to cut off this dull, monotonous, pleasure-free pain sooner rather than later.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.