When the chief editor of DMC, Todd Gleason, approached me about reviewing the Universal Pictures high budget film adaptation of the EL James book Fifty Shades of Grey, I believe I responded with something like, “Are you kidding me? That’s going to be one of the worst pieces of shit in the history of filmmaking. Of course, I’ll do it.” I might have said, “fuck yeah,” but I think he had already disconnected.
My original plan called for an expensive suit, cocktails, a sophisticated lady companion, and a private screening at one of the town’s pricier cinema venues, but due to circumstances beyond my control (DMC has literally no expense budget whatsoever), I wound up sneaking gutrot bourbon and Funyuns™ into the discount movie joint up the street from my house. I decided to dress down for the occasion: chinos, penny-loafers and a sweater knotted carelessly about my shoulders. (Not really.)
I assumed that the theater would be mobbed with scads of the same women who recklessly hurled money at books from the trilogy until literary criminal EL James became the highest grossing author on the planet—joined, of course, by the occasional lapdog boyfriend or husband debasing himself in the wretched hope that his Valentine’s Day efforts would garner him some sort of tepid sex act. So, to ensure the success of my assignment, I purchased my ticket several hours in advance and showed back up at the theater forty-five minutes before the start of the film. After buying a small soda to use as a whiskey mixer, I selected a seat in the third row. Either by coincidence or convention, every other person to sit in that row was close to my age. That does not mean that I found any kindred spirits. In a movie theater that may have sold all but a half-dozen tickets, every single patron avoided the seats to the right, left, behind, and in front of me. I was the solitary man in the middle of an empty-seat plus sign. At one point, a girl did ask about the seats to my right, but as it turns out, she only wanted to know about the ones that weren’t immediately adjacent to mine. Even with the buffer, however, the quarters were still a bit too close for me to start swigging straight from the flask, so I waited until the previews started and warmed up my fountain drink.
I went into this experience with the hope that the adage “the book is always better than the movie” would hold true. If this production was indeed worse than the book, this would have been the cinematic equivalent of the crash of the LZ 129 Hindenburg airship—and yes, I do realize the “LZ 129” is overkill, but it stands for “Luftschiff Zeppelin,” which sounds badass. So, yeah, I wanted to be the slack-jawed rubbernecker staring at the tattered careers of directors, actors, and God willing, at least one hack novelist. But as I watched aerial footage of the beautiful Seattle skyline shot through a blue lens filter, I saw a modicum of competence in the cinematography and I realized that it wasn’t my job as a professional Choir Drunk to choose sides; I would endeavor to remain neutral.
And as it turns out, unfortunately, the movie Fifty Shades of Grey was not nearly as bad as the book. I do, however, need to list some massive caveats to this statement:
- I did not thoroughly enjoy the movie.
- I do not recommend the movie to cinephiles.
- If you think that EL James’s usage of “inner goddess,” “subconscious,” or Anastasia Steel’s first person narration were useful literary devices that contributed to the entertainment value of the book, this movie may not be for you (and you should stop reading books).
- Two decades of free Internet pornography has desensitized me to the point where I was bored during some of the steamier sex scenes. I actually found myself wishing that Christian and Anastasia would talk more about their feelings.
Keeping these points in mind, I believe that we can have a sober, responsible discussion about how director Sam Taylor-Johnson elevated Fifty Shades of Grey from a comically terrible book to a mediocre but watchable film.
To begin with, the movie had a $176 million dollar production budget, which does give the director the ability to wash away a few of the sins of the book. In the book, it becomes immediately clear that, prior to completing her work on Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James had never known a rich person, (or possibly even been to a modern office building). This is almost never the case with Hollywood movie-making types. And with $176 million, the sets can actually be swanky instead of just possessing imagined swank.
The script was a vast improvement over the book, which I would describe as “unreadable” if I didn’t know so many people who had slogged through it. I’m not sure exactly who we should thank for this improvement—I’m guessing credit can be divided between Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Kelly Marcel—but the bulk of the book’s shitty dialogue was jettisoned for the sake of the film. The occasional remaining lines, however, did evoke fits of laughter from at least one audience member. Some of my favorites:
- “You have a beautiful body, Anastasia. I want you unashamed of your nakedness.”
- “I exercise control in all things, Ms. Steele.”
- “Laters, baby.” – Not as many times as the book, but still.
Because there was no narration, we didn’t have to grind our teeth through ingots of gold like this:
I pull him deeper into my mouth so I can feel him at the back of my throat and then to the front again. My tongue swirls around the end. He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavored popsicle. I suck harder and harder…My inner goddess is doing the Merengue with some salsa moves.
(All right, side note. Some women read that excerpt, got horny, and then bought additional books by the same author. “A Christian Grey flavored popsicle?” Fuck off, EL James.)
The casting, for the most part, held up. In order for director Taylor-Johnson to match up movie Christian Grey with the Christian Grey that EL James crayoned in her activity book, she probably would have had to tap into the acting pool at Mount Olympus and given whichever god she selected a makeover. Anastasia Steele, on the other hand, was kind of written like one of those actresses who use to play the librarian in eighties porn movies—the one who punishes people for late returns by having sex with them on those long newspaper bamboo things. In casting Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson (Jamie is the guy and Dakota is the girl), Taylor-Johnson (no relation) at least attempted to make the characters aesthetically relatable to her audience. Do not misunderstand me here; both of these actors are way more attractive than you or me, but I can possibly conceive that at some point in my life, I might know someone who could be attractive enough to stand in line at the same grocery store behind one of these two. And their acting wasn’t bad under the circumstances. Remember, in a sense, this is a movie about two actors prostituting themselves to be in what they had to believe was going to be one of the highest budget, dumbest pornos made in the last hundred years, but Dakota Johnson brought a lightness to the film that was completely absent from the book. So, that was kind of a bullet dodged. Critics described Jamie Dornan as “wooden” in his portrayal of Christian Grey, but those detractors are probably not considering how much worse this movie could have been if no-talent Charlie Hunnam hadn’t lost control of his man-bladder and tucked tail and ran away from the role. I sort of believed Dornan as Christian Grey (as much as possible with an EL James creation), but his performance could have been improved if wardrobe had dressed him in a coarse hooded robe and only shown his chin and nose when he was talking. It might have also been pretty neat if he was able to shoot spells from the end of his gnarled cane. He could have cast one on Anastasia Steele; or better yet, refrained from doing so because he felt like he wanted to win her hand without cheating. Now, that’s a plot.
- If Christian Grey “cocked his head to one side,” I didn’t see it. This is a character affectation that is so important that EL James mentions it seventeen times in the first novel, four times in the first ten pages. Even when she would write an otherwise normal scene, she would have Christian Grey cocking his head to one side like a beagle. The movie corrected this idiocy.
- The youth in the theater audience created a palpable electricity. I definitely felt like I was less pathetic when I only saw one person in the crowd holding a cat. It was almost like being in a hookah bar.
- A girl behind me said, “I want to marry a guy who could fly a helicopter, but those guys don’t usually exist, so . . .” Note: my friend Greyson Stone flies a helicopter for a living and he always exists.
- I got to see a naked woman on the screen. My excitement was somewhat mitigated, however, by the fact that I also saw a naked man on the screen.
- I liked the way that movie Christian Grey delivered his drink order. “I’ll have a gin and tonic. Hendrick’s if you have it, or Bombay Sapphire. Cucumber with the Hendrick’s, lime with the Bombay.” Fucking imposing.
- The tie collection was kind of cool.
- No amount of solid directing and acting can undo a truly meaningless plot. The movie still sucked.
- The whole BDSM genre is something that you’re either into or you’re not. Either way, the sex here was uninspired.
- Anastasia Steele works at a hardware store and doesn’t know the difference between duct tape and masking tape. Neither does Christian Grey. If this was a real movie, I would have been much more annoyed.
- There were no monkeys or robots. Few roles for child actors, as well.
- There is a cliché scene where Anastasia Steele is cooking Christian Grey breakfast while wearing one of his dress shirts. She’s dancing to Beast of Burden by the Stones, reducing the cultural value of the song for all future generations.
- Christian Grey tells Anastasia Steele that she can decorate her living quarters at his place any way she wants, but she doesn’t take the opportunity to pink it all up like a Barbie playhouse just to make him nauseous.
- The text message interactions are flashed across the screen, so we see that Anastasia Steele, who is an English Lit major with a 4.0 GPA, improperly uses ellipses in almost every written communication…
- The ending is a cliffhanger, meaning that Universal Pictures is irresponsibly considering making more of these movies.
At the end of the movie, Anastasia Steele realizes that she’s not cut out to be a sex slave, so she breaks up with Christian Grey at his penthouse. As she’s leaving, she gets in the elevator and turns to face the doors. He looks in and says, “Anna.” She replies, “Christian” and the doors shut. The whole ordeal is pretty forced—it’s just really not a good scene—but the hilarity came when all of the young girls in the theater audibly proclaimed their disapproval. It just seems unlikely that anyone seeing that film could be unaware that there are three books. I heard exasperated utterances like “That’s such bullshit,” and “Why would they end it like that,” the entire time I was walking back to the powder blue Volkswagen Beetle I rented for the evening.