review for a Fifty Shades film may be the most useless thing ever created, even more so than those for the most recent highly-marketed, big-budget adventure. Not just because – three films in with franchise finale Fifty Shades Freed – the battle lines of those who are going to see these films and those who aren’t have been set; but because few series in recent memory have been so blasé about offering anything to anyone because of that security. It’s not just that it offers up the weakest version of what it thinks its audience wants, but that it makes no bones about even thinking about doing more than that.
Granted the phrase ‘nothing to offer’ is extremely subjective. It has planes and yachts and mansions and high rises and sports cars and big diamonds and pretty clothes adorning pretty people and the sort of fluffy melodrama that has been a staple of soap operas since the dawn of time. And, to quote one Anastasia Steele-Grey (Johnson), “boobs as far as the eye can see, boobs in boobland.” Following eccentric billionaire Christian Grey’s (Dornan) surprise proposal at the end of Fifty Shades Darker – and a whirlwind ceremony over the opening credits – the newly-married couple settles down to doing pretty much exactly what they were doing before, enjoying being super rich and having a secret room full of sex toys. Or they would if Christian’s controlling nature would stop getting in the way and make Anastasia consider second thoughts. Or if a disgruntled former boss was stalking the couple in a quest for revenge …
It’s both obvious and completely unsurprising that the story of the Greys would encompass every frothy soap opera plot under the sun short of evil twins or UFO abductions. It’s also fine, that was part of its appeal (so to speak); that and the promise of kinky but tame sex. There are a lot of opportunities within those constraints for some interesting storytelling – Peter Greenway’s entire oeuvre is practically built on it. And while there’s no need to delve quite into Greenway or Cronenberg levels of psychosexual dysfunction, there is definitely the bones of a story within 50 Shades detailing whether and how two people could change important facets of their personality in the name of a long-term relationship. And these would not be incompatible with indulging the surface-oriented pleasures that are the series’ bread and butter. But that would take work and might not be what the target audience wants, so why go to all the trouble?
Which isn’t to say that stuff isn’t there, even if it is buried deep in the source material by E L James. Christian’s playroom is an extremely surface-oriented metaphor for his own control issues but one that could be used to mirror changes in his core character and relationships. Instead, it is treated as a vestigial memento of the series’ past, something to be trotted out with each visit, because it is expected like James Bond’s martini request. And that’s about the level of interest to expect from everyone involved. Director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) obviously knows how to make a film, but has anything ever felt so factory level as Fifty Shades Freed and in the worst way possible? Even the worst action movie or horror film in the world has the odd jolt of adrenaline; for a film about sex, Fifty Shades Freed is completely absent of joy.
Is there anything worthwhile to take from it? It’s pretty; the fantasy value of the lives of the rich and famous is real, we wouldn’t pay so much attention if it wasn’t. And in five-minute vignettes, it would probably be harder to tell how empty it all is. And Johnson still proves herself a remarkably-gifted actress, able to spin even the most absurd lines into something human and taking full advantage of the rare gem which is (or could be) genuinely funny. Part of that is being the heroine and point-of-view character. She is one of the few to be allowed something like a human reaction to the weirdness around her, but it is also easy to imagine another actress stuck within the character and being smothered by it. Much the way Dornan is smothered by Christian (or maybe we just wish he were). If it’s clear how much Johnson brings to her role, it’s less obvious how much Christian’s faults are his actors or his creators, but it is clear next to Anastasia all of his flaws are magnified. Christian is, as explained, supposed to be tightly wound, but the Dornan version of that is to act like a robot. If Johnson manages to make a meal out of some very light dialogue, Dornan makes almost all of his lines worse.
Will any of this matter to anyone? No. The people who want to see this will see it; the ones who don’t, won’t. The best that can be said of the whole thing is that there won’t be any more until some other studio tries to copy Fifty Shades’ success. Let’s all hope we’ve learned our lesson by then.
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