Like sands through the hourglass, these are the Days of Our Lives. Now with boobies!
If you’re here to read a treatise on all the problems plaguing recent cinematic fare, you are in the wrong place, Dear Reader. I completely understand the rage many filmphiles have felt in recent years, so inundated with sequel-itis, comic book movie fatigue, and the remake-a-palooza – yearning instead for films like Lion, Moonlight, or Swiss Army Man. So why even bother viewing (or reviewing) a sequel, based on a follow-up, that followed a novel, based on an online fanfiction, based on a best selling young adult series? Simply put, Fifty Shades Darker – the follow up to the 2016 Academy Award-nominated Fifty Shades of Grey – yeah…ACADEMY AWARD-NOMINATED– surprises no one, fulfilling its visual fantasies in all the ways its audience desires. Don’t knock what works, I suppose
Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) returns to submit to the sexual will of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), but this time he really wants to make the relationship work. Gaining her independence in both the bedroom and the boardroom, Ana is all grown up and ready to allow Christian back into her life. Of course, all is not easy as forces combine to separate the lovers; moreover, as the two learn more about each other, it’s the fruit of knowledge that threatens to destroy their private Eden for good, etc., etc.
So…is it a good film? Well, for the average audience-goer…for me…no. Not really. I am not the target audience. However, I’m going to do my best to subjectively break Darker down for you, reduce it to its critical leather elements, and we will see where we end up. Strap on, Kiddies, with all the innuendo that implies.
I like to end my reviews with a positive, so let’s get the worst out of the way now. It’s impossible for the film to escape the story it’s based on, especially when the studio fires a whip-smart screenwriter and replaces her with the novelist’s husband; the new guy kind of has to side with the source material. Here the multi-genre melodramatic tale translates to labored plot points and ludicrously intense story beats that take away its greatest power: the accidental comedy. Screenwriter Niall Leonard never embraces the silliness and takes the tragedy far too seriously; we’re all here to have fun, but the Submissive Leonard seems smothered under the weight of his Dominant novelist wife’s “original” words.
Ultimately the film, like the novel, is billed as a thriller, but the editing and scene selections/omissions do little to create the air of suspense or even real danger, save for a few laughable moments that are played to manic Joan Crawford heights. Even though you know another film is coming, unanswered questions drown in a sea of casually abandoned story threads. But as a positive, Leonard’s dialogue is fresher and less expository than Kelly Marcel’s …of Grey, offering the cast the chance to settle into their roles a little better.
Directed by Glengarry Glen Ross great James Foley, Darker’s template is synonymous with its title, begging for the suspense the story struggles to achieve. Professionalism is the game here, as Foley dutifully captures the Pacific Northwest at magic hour and attempts to generate romance with flowing camerawork, pouty closeups, and sets that reflect Grey’s wealth and power. The director is joined by fellow Hollywood elite John Schwartzman, whose cinematography adds some legitimacy to the sequel’s heightened budget and erudition. The soundtrack nicely juxtaposes its pop hits, and Danny Elfman returns with a score just as effective as he delivered in Grey. It’s almost as if I’m describing another film.
Dakota Johnson continues to be the shining light in this ray of dim bulbs, embracing the ridiculous better than her co-stars and making the most of many a silly line. In Johnson’s hands, Ana is more fully-realized than the series deserves, shifting from comedy to drama with sincerity — a cheeky throwback to her mother’s Working Girl. Dornan is far more comfortable as Christian this time, astutely dialing back his more melodramatic impulses. The chemistry between the couple almost seems real, but they’re far more believable as hot-for-each-other than star-crossed-lovers.
A villainous trio of roadblocks arrive in the form of a former submissive, the dead-eyed Bella Heathcoate; old flame Kim Basinger, blazing into the film with the best of intentions, delivering the film its paramount Telenovela fatale; and Ana’s boss, who only wants to get into her pants. Here’s the thing: the only difference I can see between boss Jack Hyde (yeah, that’s his name) and Christian Grey is the bank account. Both make demands of Ana, but there can only be one penthouse.
Let’s be real: if you’ve read this far, you probably just want to know about the sex. It’s far less creative than the emotional warfare presented in Grey, but not necessarily less enticing. There’s something to be said about the exploration of kink in a serious, monogamous relationship where both parties are on equal ground (and that last part’s the key). Though the MPAA still restricts the acts to punch-pulling softcore, boundaries are pushed nonetheless, and some of the film’s better (and funniest) scenes begin in the bedroom, or an elevator, or the shower, or… you get the idea.
So yes, Fifty Shades Darker is puerile escapism and emotional pornography. It’s a film for grabbing your girlfriends and heading to a theater that serves wine. It’s absurd, but fun – and that’s exactly why it works, as long as you don’t take it as seriously as it takes itself.