In my years as a critic, I’ve always managed to resist the urge to walk out on bad movies. There’s a professional obligation to sit through the worst of the worst and force myself to endure the bad in the hope that you don’t have to. It was a particularly difficult struggle of endurance and will to not walk out of Fifty Shades Darker, however, one that took the full suppression of my every instinct, every desire, and every sense of decency to overcome. Somehow, I managed it.
Fifty Shades Darker is less a film than a cinematic ramble, a series of flimsily conceived scenes strung together by the loosest of plots as an excuse to get from one passionless sex scene to the next. In between the blistering mediocrity of the sex—which, I gather, is a large part of the appeal of the E.L. James novels—is a story so irredeemably pointless that the only limits pushed are the limits of audience patience.
What little plot there is to be found within Fifty Shades Darker can be summarized as an abuser, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) wins his former victim, Anastasia Steele—good lord, I can’t even type that name with a straight face—(Dakota Johnson) back by swearing he’s changed. Never mind that she, rightly, walked out of his posh penthouse and reclaimed both her independence and dignity not so long ago. No, he means it. Honestly. This time it’s different.
For a film that’s ostensibly playing to the fantasies of its female audience, it certainly does presume the worst. I suppose you could argue that there’s something mildly empowering about taking a billionaire who’s so enthralled by power that he systematically breaks down the psyches of women for his own gratification and flipping him so hard that he literally gets on his knees and begs for forgiveness. Had the script deigned to offer a more nuanced portrayal of this power struggle, I might give that some consideration.
Instead, we’re meant to just accept that Anastasia is making the right decision. Never mind that it’s exceptionally creepy that Christian is still sending her flowers. Never mind that he purchases large photographs of her from an art show to keep “strangers” from looking at her. Never mind that he buys the company she works for. These are all good and romantic gestures, and not at all the moves of an obsessive stalker. Jesus Christ, if he were poor and ugly, this would be a thriller and not a romance.
It’s made all the worse by the fact that Dornan and Johnson have somewhere in the range of zero chemistry. Neither of them look particularly interested in being there, and both plod through with all the gusto you’d expect of someone who committed to plans they had no interest in and realized too late they couldn’t get out of. Neither of them are bad at their jobs, overall—Dornan was brilliant in The Fall, and Johnson was endearingly lovable in How to Be Single—but both of them are bad here.
Maybe not career-ending-bad, but the taint of their involvement will surely follow them as their careers continue to grow. They are, at this point, indelibly linked to the roles of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in the same way that Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart can’t quite seem to step out from the shadows of Twilight, the sappy vampire love story which inspired James to write the internet fan-fiction that later became the Fifty Shades series.
Not even Kim Basinger, playing a Grey family friend who systematically sexually abused a young Grey, can elevate the rambling drivel of this script. She not only phones it in, she barely looks present; instead she comes off as an impersonation of a bad Kim Basinger impersonator. This was probably the best should do with the material she was given, the source for which is one of the finest examples of aberrant pop culture phenomena in the history of pop culture.
There’s no saving grace here, nothing to maintain your interest. As far as flashes in pans go, the Fifty Shades fire burnt out years ago, making this a fine example of both too little and too late. By the time you get to the mid-credits trailer for next year’s Fifty Shades Freed, the prospect of spending another two hours in this insipid world feels like nothing less than a direct threat to your well-being and sanity. It’s already been made, it’s happening, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. This movie can earn a fraction of its $55 million budget, and still we’ll be subjected to more.
I weep for Johnson and Dornan. If this is what passes for romance these days, I weep for us all.
Fifty Shades Darker is now playing in theaters everywhere.