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Review: 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is limp on sex, but Dakota Johnson is great

It's a mixed bag, but the movie of a poorly written mega-seller nearly transcends its dodgy source.

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’
Director:
Sam Taylor-Johnson
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dorman
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

It didn’t have to be good, and the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie perhaps isn’t: It’s a deeply, probably unavoidably mixed bag, with flaccid sex, one weak lead and a fair amount of insta-camp clunk. It also has one lead who’s terrific, truly sexy banter (if not sexy bonking) and a near 100 percent lack of the source’s major liability: its hilariously underarticulate prose (written from the POV of a lit major). E.L. James seemed to only know 30 words, and two of them were “genital clamps.” That term does make it to the screen version, which otherwise stays generically faithful while teasing out the book’s lurking humanity. It’s no Clint Eastwood’s superheroic saving of “The Bridges of Madison County,” but it’ll do.

Granted, it still has to stick to the romance novel boilerplate setup. Dakota Johnson — the lead who’s excellent — is the mouthful-named Anastasia Steele, a mousy collegiate who winds up stirring the loins of alpha shark billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman, the lead who’s not excellent but does have a certain boyishness). He can’t help but be drawn to this meek wallflower who works in a hardware store, even as he warns her that he has a secret — a secret that will send her fleeing if she ever learned it. But he really, really can’t help himself — no, this isn’t naked fantasy at all — and soon enough Anastasia is actually asking, out loud, if his “playroom” is where he stores his Xbox.

On page this is ludicrous — page-turningly, read-on-the-3-train-while-it's-concealed-in-the-NYT-Magazine ludicrous. (It’s so poorly written that one can plow through 100 of its far too many pages without even trying or noticing.) As played it’s only moderately silly — in fact, only silly at all because if it skipped certain bits the record number of advance ticket buyers would demand blood. There are parts, right from the book, that will entice giggles and audience shouting; no one, and especially not Dorman, can legitimize Christian’s mope line, “I’m 50 shades of f—ed up.”

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The “Fifty” film half-heartedly trudges through these passages, but not out of total disinterest. What really drives director Sam Taylor-Johnson — an actual artist who also made the so-so Young John Lennon picture “Nowhere Boy” — is her leads’ on-simmer banter and her very real, very anxious attempt to get to know a man who may simply be a messed-up psycho. The book is pure mommy porn fantasy with deeply, troublingly revealing subtext (or text, really) about being dominated, spliced with that old standby about fixing a broken (strapping, ostentatiously wealthy) man. That’s in the film too, but it’s more turned on by the way they communicate with words, be it through email foreplay or negotiations. In fact, the hottest scene is a contract meeting, and not only because the sex scenes are of the “dark room, quick cuts-to-elide-naughty-bits and sensual R&B” variety, only with some actual nudity (less so from Dorman, who insisted on a no-peen clause).

Taylor-Johnson plays everything knowingly straight, which is not to say ironically. There’s a cool intelligence — and a distinct, disarming sense of smart humor — applied to this bodice ripper material, from director but also from Johnson, who proves, among other things, to be a sparkling stealth comedian. She’s not a blank, like Kristen Stewart in the “Twilight”s. She may seem deer-in-headlights at first, but she’s in full control of her nervousness, quietly and assuredly deadpanning responses — part-apprehensive, part-titillated — to Christian’s over-the-top horndog revelations and requests. Granted, Johnson isn’t required to endure nearly as much as did her on-the-page counterpart; the sex is severely watered down and truncated. (Sorry, no geisha ball set piece.)

That’s not a bad thing. Whittling down the BDSM to a nub means not having to engage in the book’s more questionable antics, not the least its grossly misrepresentative portrayal of leather-and-ball-gag types. Diluting that also puts the focus back on the characters and predicaments that are…almost meaningful. “Fifty: The Movie” can’t transcend the more florid passages, and it downplays the book’s abrupt climax in a way that makes it seem even more sudden. But it very nearly achieves the impossible, or at least unlikely: It’s found the solid, quasi-feminist melodrama in a book that reads like the wrong kind of fantasy.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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