Wednesday, February 25, 2015

50 Shades of Grey

3.5/4

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content including Dialogue, Some Unusual Behavior and Graphic Nudity, and for Language

I was not looking forward to seeing this movie.  The source material is based on "Twilight" fan fiction and the advance word was horrible.  Funny how things work out, isn't it?

"Fifty Shades of Grey" has been controversial ever since the book was released, and that hasn't changed with the film.  I'm not sure why except to say "only in America."  The film contains plenty of sex, but certainly nothing to get worked up about.  After all, it's about S&M, isn't it?

Anastasia Steele (Johnson) is an English major in Seattle.  Her roommate Kate (Mumford) is sick on the day she is to interview the sexy and mysterious billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan), so she sends Anastasia instead.  Christian is cold and aloof, but something grows between them.  Soon, a much deeper connection forms, but Ana finds out that his personal tastes venture into, shall we say, the exotic.

What makes this film work is that director Sam Taylor-Wood is interested in exploring their relationship, not exploiting it.  This isn't a cheap sex film, nor is it pornographic in any way (although some of the sex scenes are hot).  Both Anastasia and Christian are well-developed, and Taylor-Wood takes care in developing their personalities and the forces that drive them.

The performances help as well.  Both Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan give strong performances.  They're not Oscar-worthy, but I accepted them as real people, and for the film's second half to work, that's essential.  Neither of them is who they seem at the beginning of the film, and they know it.  For example, initially Anastasia seems to be a mousy doormat, but she has inner strength in her that surprises Christian.  Conversely, Christian seems like a stone wall, but he has his reasons for being who he is.  Taylor-Wood handles the development of their characters like a seasoned pro.

Taylor-Wood plays the material reasonably straight, but isn't above having a little fun with the material.  There's a scene between Anastasia and Christian that's conducted like a board room meeting with business executives in expensive suits; on paper, it sounds sleazy (I won't say more because I don't want to give anything away), but in execution it's hilarious, bringing to mind the infamous business card scene in "American Psycho."

The connection to "Twilight" is tenuous.  While that one was all about teen angst and use vampirism and the visual appeal of its stars to sell tickets, this one is more honest.  It also helps that the dialogue is stronger, the acting is better, and there's less posturing.  This is a movie about sexual exploration than a shallow tween romance.

I will argue that the film starts too late.  For someone who captures the attention of the first two characters we meet (Ana and Kate), Christian is given no introduction.  For Christian's entrance to have the effect that Taylor-Wood wants it to have, his entrance needs a better build-up.  By the same token, the film is about ten minutes too long and drags here and there.  I loved the ending, however, and found it incredibly daring.

Ultimately, "50 Shades of Grey" works because it's less of a movie about sex than a movie about relationships.  Having a romantic relationship, even one that seems as strange as this one, takes work, and the parties are going to have to learn to accept each other the way they are.  Adjustments have to be made on both sides of the relationship, and that's how Taylor-Wood sees the story.

This is not for the tightly-wound or conservative movie-goer.  But it's also not the sleazy sex-fest that you might think.

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