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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, February 27, 2015

Not as kinky as you’re thinking


The Critic's Corner



David Laprad

If there’s anything weirder than the kinky sex play that goes on in “50 Shades of Grey,” it’s an adult male going to see “50 Shades of Grey” by himself. I could only imagine the assumptions of the young women who were there.

The girl at the ticket window was less than transparent with her theory. “One ticket for ‘50 Shades,’ please,” I said as a woman with three kids at the next window cast a wary glance in my direction.

“I write for a local newspaper,” I said to the teenage girl behind the glass, the words falling out of my mouth like bricks, “and I need to review the movie.”

“Uh huh.”

“I saw ‘The Kingsman’ last week,” I added, hoping to redirect her thoughts. “It was terrific.”

“Okay. You’ll be in theater eight. Enjoy the show.”

“I can’t imagine it’s any good, but I’m going in with an open mind.” More bricks, heavier than the last bunch.

“Next!”

Several clusters of the young women I mentioned earlier were already settled in as I entered the theater. Although it was probably my imagination, they seemed to collectively stop talking for a few seconds and look at me – the perv that arrived solo.

I wanted to tell them I’m a movie critic, and was there because I had to be, but I decided to leave well enough alone. “Where are those North Korean hackers when you need them?” I thought as I sank into a seat near the front and opened a box of Reese’s Pieces. (My tastes are very singular.)

I was embarrassed because I knew what I was getting into. Based on a series of books that has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, “50 Shades” examines the relationship between the virginal college graduate Anastasia (Ana, for short) and the 27-year-old billionaire, Christian Grey, who also has singular tastes – although what he enjoys doing is not even remotely related to munching on peanut butter candies while watching sadomasochistic erotica on a Friday afternoon.

Rather, Grey derives pleasure from dominating his lover, and not just in his “play room” – an Inquisitor’s fever dream stocked with whips, chains, and other BDSM paraphernalia – but in every aspect of her life. He’s used to getting his way, too, whether it’s in the boardroom or the bedroom, so when Ana interviews him for an article to be published in a college magazine, and he’s drawn to her naiveté and unassuming beauty, he sets out to make her his.

While I haven’t read the books, most critics say they’re laughably bad. Given their consensus, I wasn’t expecting much from the movie. Still, in its first weekend of release, “50 Shades” made $85 million on a budget of $40 million – most of which I assume was spent on ball gags and nipple clamps – so I felt obligated to give it a shot.

Bullying the film would be easy. For starters, the filmmakers use less than subtle visual cues to suggest the nature of its characters. Christian is cold and emotionally closed, so he wears only grey clothing. Ana, on the other hand, is shy and easily intimidated, so she sports frumpy clothes, ties her hair in a messy ponytail, and clutches anything she’s carrying to her chest. This kind of shorthand is common in movies, but in “50 Shades,” it comes across as especially heavy-handed.

There’s nothing subtle about the dialogue, either. People speak in short sentences, which generally keeps things tolerable but doesn’t entirely protect the actors from having to recite the occasional mind boggler, like when Ana asks Christian if she’s upset him, and he says, “Palm itchingly so.”

The script also has an annoying habit of locking its characters into their archetypes, to the point where Ana and Christian’s behavior almost becomes robotic. Christian, for example, insists Ana sign a contract before they begin their relationship as dominant and submissive, and while going over the particulars of the document, Ana asks, in all innocence, “What’s a butt plug?”

Still ... “50 Shades” has more going for it that I initially assumed it would.

The filmmakers must have been aware of the novel’s heavy kitsch factor, as they smartly chose to play several scenes for laughs, like the contract negotiation. Played straight on the screen, that sequence would have been disastrous.

I also thought the casting was spot on. Jamie Dornan makes a good Christian Grey, and not because he looks great staring pensively out of large windows at downtown Seattle, but because he struck the right balance of intense and vulnerable, and comforting and threatening. Dakota Johnson is equally good as Ana. With the exception of a few dry line readings early in the movie, she nicely portrays the breadth of Ana’s journey from frumpy and awkward to confident and forceful.

Also, the two actors appear to be very comfortable with each other, whether their clothes are on or off. I wouldn’t call what they have chemistry, but there’s an ease between them that makes their relationship feel natural.

But for me, the movie version of “50 Shades” succeeds because of the way it handled the slowly blossoming relationship. The way they meet, the way Ana initially resists Christian’s advances, the way she slowly gives in to them, the way he introduces her to his “singular tastes,” the way she takes her time warming up to them, the way she doesn’t simply cave in to his every demand but stands her ground, the way that changes him, the way his steely exterior gradually cracks – it’s all thoughtfully written and patiently played out without ever becoming boring. For all of its hackneyed plotting, “50 Shades” does the most important thing right: it gives us characters that respond to each other and change as a result of meeting. Like this story or not, that’s the key to good fiction.

The thing I liked the most about “50 Shades,” though, was the ending. I don’t know how the book concludes, but I’d say the movie at least comes close. Hollywood has a habit of turning popular books into films and then changing the ending to make it happier, or more digestible, but that doesn’t happen here, and I applaud the filmmakers for their bravery.

“50 Shades” is not a great movie, but it’s not a bad one, either. I sat near the front to make a quick exit, but I wound up lingering in my seat, gathering my thoughts. If you’re not into romantic dramas, it won’t win you over, but if you’re looking for something meatier than a Lifetime movie of the week, you could do worse.

Three stars out of four. Rated R for strong sexual content, unusual behavior, graphic nudity, and language. David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.