By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Feb 12, 2018 at 6:56 PM

Forget the whips, chains, nipple clamps and butt plugs. In "Fifty Shades Freed," the finale to this literary bleh-nage a trois, Anastasia Steele and her kinky cardboard cutout Christian Grey pull out their most dangerous plaything yet: the monotonous routine and domestic doldrums of married life.

At least that’s how the audience feels, watching the same undercooked sex scenes and the same five-minute interludes when the movie tries to care about anything else, fails, then never speaks of it ever again. Ana may be the one in handcuffs, but it’s viewers who are held prisoner in this sex-rich, plot-poor exercise in brainless boinking – which somehow ends up nowhere near as much fun as it sounds.

And this somehow marks an improvement from the last film.

This typically marks the point in a review where the basic story is laid out, but that would require a story – something "Freed" casually rejects like its name is Jose. Instead, most of this final E.L. James adaptation (shh, nobody tell Universal she wrote two whole additional books told from Christian’s perspective) spends its time meandering between glamorous lifestyle porn that would make Nancy Meyers use her safe word and literal porn – less due to its explicitness (once again, you can find more adventurous kink on basic cable), and more due to its disinterest in anything going on in between bonkings.

Returning screenwriter Niall Leonard’s aversion to committing to plotlines is again only matched by its lead couple’s aversion to clothing, trying on threads and taking them off just as quickly while using sex scenes the way most films use edits. Christian and Ana dealing with life in the paparazzi’s lens? Nah, time for sex on a boat. The pair's complicated power dynamics as high-level working people balancing life together? Never mind, more sex. Anything going to happen with that aggressive architect (Arielle Kebbel)? Or her relationship with Christian’s playboy brother Elliot? Nope, moving on to smashing in a sports car. Well, certainly the couple’s haunted pasts with Elena (Kim Basinger, smartly not back) and employer-turned-attacker Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) will play a … oh, OK, maybe some other time. Right now, we need to have a sexy ice cream social.

For a while, it’s actually entertaining enough. The fancy Lifestyles of the Rich and Monogamous montages are suitably slick and glossy, while its ramshackle story is held together by some engaging flirty fun – mostly courtesy of star and series MVP Dakota Johnson. While Jamie Dornan has always felt stiff (um, actually let’s go with uncomfortable), Johnson’s breathy energy and grounded goofiness has made the most of the limited material. Ana’s growing confidence in "Fifty Shades Freed" makes her an even more entertaining sparring partner for her stoic taskmaster, slinkily challenging his control and sighing her rebellion against Christian, the most finicky tool in the playroom.

There’s only so much sex the human body can take, however, before enthusiasm gives way to exhaustion, steam heat melting into a sweaty mess. The screenplay quickly feels less like it’s scattershot and distracted in the name of breezy fun and more in the reverence to James’, uh, lacking approach to storytelling. (Surely, it’s just a coincidence Leonard is married to James in real life!)

After half a movie of more vacations than story beats and no five minutes coherently connecting to what came before or after, no amount of melted Ben & Jerry’s can sweeten the question chained to "Fifty Shades Freed" that is increasingly weighing it down: Where’s the point? (Quite literally too, considering Dornan’s downstairs manages to escape trilogy without its shot in the spotlight. Even his few shots of nudity seem squeamishly eager to cut away as soon as possible, while Johnson can’t go ten minutes without being disrobed. Oh, go figure, it’s a male director … )

Unfortunately, the point eventually reveals itself to be a soggy romantic melodrama and damp squib of an erotic thriller, both told with such indifference it’ll make the audience yearn for the halcyon days of blandly repetitive chemistry-less sex and bad piano covers of "Maybe I’m Amazed."  

Half of the focus lands on the most titillating of plot developments: a surprise pregnancy (hey, it’s better than "Fifty Shades Darker" opening on domestic abuse) that kills the loose, breezy fun to be had and instead puts the focus back on how dysfunctional and poor this supposedly swoon-worthy romance is. After all, these two only get around to talking about casual matters like taking each other’s names and having kids after they get married, and Christian still can’t go one missed email without barging into Ana’s rare work meeting. ("Fifty Shades Freed": a bad advertisement for sex, an even worse one for the publishing industry.)

Even that is just a glorified subplot taking up all of maybe three scenes. The main plot path follows disgraced former editor Hyde’s plot for revenge against Christian and Anastasia, a decent setup for lurid potboiler thrills that Leonard and director James Foley don’t as much put on the backburner as not even put on the stove in the first place. Most of the plot information is delivered literally via characters reading off papers, while not one but two car chases are shot with disinterest then edited into incomprehensibility. Even when Hyde gets close to Ana in an early break-in, Foley barely lets the tension last five seconds before it lazily falls apart as a non-starter surrounded by non-starters. No wonder Foley spends so much time on sex scenes; he seems baffled on how to thrill the audience while the characters are clothed.  

Eventually the plot contrives a way to bring this thriller subplot back for a half-hearted finale involving a kidnapping scheme that spends more time dealing with a bank teller than with its big final Hyde confrontation. What’s better: not having a plot or pretending you do? Either way, "Fifty Shades Freed" finishes with a painfully flaccid climax that no amount of Viagra could resurrect.

It’s a shame because, despite the hacky source material, there is a version of the "Fifty Shades" franchise that delivers the entertaining smut the audience deserves, one that focuses less on "dangerous" thrills it’s too toothless to execute (in or out of the bedroom) and more on the mismatched rom-com energy of its cast. The first movie proved it. True, it had the most focused plot of the bunch, but it also had then-director Sam Taylor-Johnson toeing the perfect tone, embracing the silliness of the source material without winking or insulting the audience for enjoying it.

A few too many behind-the-scenes clashes later, however, and she was removed, with Foley now driving an aimless victory lap with nothing for the leads to do but each other. "Fifty Shades Freed" is more of the same, just slightly improved. Maybe because of Johnson’s freed-up, airy flirtation or merely because the second film dropped the bar so low. Or maybe it’s just because "Fifty Shades Freed" has indeed finally freed everyone from this franchise. 

"Fifty Shades Freed": ** out of ****

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

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.