OK, let’s just do this thing: “Fifty Shades of Grey” the movie, for the record, is not quite as bad as “Fifty Shades of Grey” the book. But that’s not saying much.
Is it a good movie? No. Is Dakota Johnson’s performance better than it seems to be in the trailer, in which she appears to be perpetually on the verge of tears? Yes. Does Anastasia say “Holy crap!” in the movie as often as she does in the book? No, thank goodness. Does this movie employ extremely nonsubtle visual metaphors, such as loving shots of keys sliding into locks and a pencil pushing on a woman’s lips? Yes, but at least there’s no train heading into a tunnel. Are lines like “I’m not going to touch you. Not until I have your written consent” just as wooden on screen as they are on the page? Yes, and why am I feeling like I shouldn’t use the word “wooden” here?
For anyone who’s managed to steer clear of this phenomenon (lucky you), “Fifty Shades of Grey,” based on the extremely dull erotic best-seller by E.L. James, is about new college grad Anastasia Steele (Johnson) and 27-year-old Seattle tech gazillionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, sort of like a young Colin Firth on tranquilizers). They meet-cute-ish when she interviews him for her college paper — and, tripping as she enters his office, falls to her knees. (Foreshadowing!) He, a tortured soul with a mysterious past, is quite taken with her, and wants to sign her up as his submissive, a process that involves a great deal of contract negotiation. (Which takes place in a dimly lit room!) Sex, in various shades of R-rated and consensual grey, ensues.
The book, long and tedious and awkwardly written, at least is bad enough to be funny. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson (“Nowhere Boy”), however, knows what she’s doing, and “Fifty Shades of Grey” the movie, at least up until we get to the Red Room of Extremely Organized Pain, threatens to be not-terrible. Early on, Johnson has an adorable little drunk scene on the phone with Christian (“You hit the hail on the ned,” she slurs), and you can almost see “Fifty Shades” veering off into Nora Ephron territory. Why can’t all the characters be cheerfully drunk for the rest of the two hours? Why can’t we?
But they’re not, and we’re not (well, I wasn’t; maybe you won’t make that mistake), and eventually we’re in the Red Room, where the movie goes to die. Meanwhile, Christian begins to reveal his Dark Secrets and Tragic Past that cause him to behave the way he does (and, not incidentally, demonstrates a real knack for plunking out exquisitely moody postcoital Bach on his grand piano — and no, that is not a metaphor), and Anastasia begins to feel her power, as she realizes that she can change him — and that, my friends, is the fantasy that has earned E.L. James the big bucks. Taylor-Johnson tries hard to sell it, but I wasn’t buying.