THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"FIFTY SHADES DARKER"
Fifty Shades of Grey was an intensely disturbing film, in all the wrong ways. Based on the inexplicably popular E.L. James novel, the movie was essentially one big rape fantasy about a beautiful-but-innocent young woman who agrees to let a damaged man have his way with her because he's rich and attractive. Perhaps devoted fans of James' work would argue with that assessment, but to the eyes of a newcomer, that's precisely what it seemed to be. Sure, the soundtrack was great and the peeks into dominant/submissive sex were, shall we say, not dull. On a deeper level, though, the movie was unpleasantly uncomfortable. The sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, is less a rape fantasy and more a really cheesy soap opera with intermittent scenes of smutty sex. It's certainly better than the first one, albeit that's a low bar to clear.
Dakota Johnson returns as Anastasia Steele. Out of the blue, she is approached by former lover/master Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). He begs her to come back, promising that she will never again have to experience the dark, twisted side of his sexual nature. Anastasia agrees, they engage in some consensual kinky sex, and Christian does indeed seem to be trying hard to change. Then the problems start. Christian's mentally ill former submissive, Leila (Bella Heathcote), starts stalking Ana. Her lecherous boss Jack (Eric Johnson) makes no effort to hide the fact that he wants to sleep with her. And Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger), the older woman who seduced Christian when he was a teenager, rears her head in a bid to scare Ana away.
While Anastasia is a much more willing and enthusiastic participant in the sexcapades this time around, Fifty Shades Darker still manages to send a message that could generously be described as “questionable.” The plot (shallowly) explores the abuse that led Christian to his preferred proclivities. They all have to do with the abuse he suffered at the hands of Elena. James' message – and I'm blaming her because the movie is simply adapting her story – is that adolescent sexual abuse turns you into an adult whose mild emotional torment is mitigated by some really phenomenal bedroom antics. That's a ludicrous assertion, one lacking in even the most basic knowledge of what sexual abuse victims endure. Taking Fifty Shades Darker seriously is impossible, given this stunning aversion to honesty.
Then again, trying to take this movie seriously would be impossible anyway. There's a semi-amusing over-the-top quality to everything. A helicopter crash, an armed assailant, and a masquerade ball all figure prominently into the plot. And the sex? Let's just say that you may learn a few things from watching. There's one scene where Christian inserts a gizmo with two dangling silver orbs into Anastasia's vagina before they head out for the evening, and all I could think about was how much the Tall Man from Phantasm would've gotten off on this moment. Of course, because this is an American film, Dakota Johnson is naked a lot during the softcore scenes, while Jamie Dornan is required only to do a few brief butt shots. Sorry, ladies. Enjoy, fellas!
The two leads actually work up a little more chemistry here than they did the first time around. Johnson, in particular, is appealing. While the reasons why Anastasia agrees to keep going back to this clearly unstable man are unconvincing, the actress at least has sufficient charisma to keep us invested in her character. Elena, meanwhile, would seem to have a lot of potential as an antagonist for Ana, especially when played by Kim Basinger, yet the movie never capitalizes on that potential. Leila, too, offers the promise of some more substantial drama, only to be quickly pushed aside.
That's kind of how Fifty Shades Darker goes. The good stuff – catchy pop songs, gorgeous cinematography, edgy sex scenes, etc. – are buried beneath the story's half-hearted attempt to be “topical” by suggesting that kinkiness is caused by abuse. Maybe there's a worthy idea buried in there somewhere, but James wants to make statutory rape seem bad while also celebrating what she wrongly perceives as the fringe benefits of it. When you have a central thesis as fundamentally unsound as that one, all the positive stuff gets sucked down into the black hole right in the center. At the very least, a more detailed exploration of abuse would be necessary. In this case, that would mean not turning Leila and Elena into one-dimensional obstacles for Anastasia and Christian to overcome.
Fifty Shades Darker is morally problematic, although not quite as much as its predecessor. Director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) has cranked up the melodrama enough to prevent boredom. Unfortunately, he doesn't have anything deep to work with. James' vision is frustratingly shallow. Sexual fantasy is all well and good. Trying to tie it to something weighty without giving that weighty material its proper due is, to use an apt metaphor, a real turn-off.
( out of four)
Fifty Shades Darker is rated R for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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