Man, relationships can be torture. So can blockbuster sequels that feel like they have been thrown together so hastily, that they lack the production value of your average daytime soap opera. Of course, this is in reference to sultry, sloppy "Fifty Shades Darker," the sequel to the smash-hit "Fifty Shades of Grey" that made more than 560 million dollars around the globe. It's based on the second book in the trilogy by author E.L. James, with a third film, "Fifty Shades Freed," already set to hit theaters on Valentine's Day 2018.
Needless to say, this critic did not read the books, so it is not for me to say how close this movie referenced its source material (you can read my full, in-depth review of the first film, "Fifty Shades of Grey," by clicking here). As I had commented then, it's not for me to try to figure out why these books have become an international phenomenon, but I think it's safe to say that it isn't because of its literary quality, its detailed characters, or its well-crafted plot. It is a simply a guilty pleasure, in the same way that fans of "The Bachelor" wouldn't call that show "great." Entertaining? Perhaps. It exists to be consumed, and for some, as racy sexual fantasy. For the rest of us, it is so bad that it just becomes fascinating to watch and to laugh at all of its unintentional hilariousness.
Make no mistake: "Fifty Shades Darker" is so bad that it actually becomes entertaining. Yes, this is a threshold that few films cross, but it manages to be so awful that you can't even apply the rules of intellectual criticism to it. This comes from a male movie critic who actually didn't find the first film to be all that bad (again, read the original review at the link above). The title to this sequel couldn't be further from the truth. "Fifty Shades Darker" is in fact, much lighter, much less edgy, than its predecessor, and that's a disappointment.
Dakota Johnson returns as Anastasia Steele, who is working as an assistant at a publishing company to her a-hole of a boss, Jack (Eric Johnson). She can't quite get the billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) out of her thoughts, and the feeling is mutual; the creepy Grey is still consumed with his former "submissive" but he is now willing to change his dark ways in order to win her back. Ana is a confusing enigma of emotions; she is appalled by Grey's "interests" and at the same time is drawn to them. She can't quite figure out what she wants, and the audience can't either.
Shockingly (and spoiler alert!), almost nothing happens. Does Christian Grey have other, more sinister, motives? Nope! Is that strange girl who is following Ana throughout the film (the up-and-coming Bella Heathcote) going to make things more interesting? Not really. The first 90-minutes of this two-hour film is basically watching the domestication of Christian Grey as he is tamed and transformed into a somewhat normal brooding billionaire. It's like the scene in "Beauty and the Beast" where Belle tries teaching the Beast manners, if that scene were to be stretched into an entire movie. Oh, and if the Beast and Belle had occasional steamy Cinemax-style sex.
Yes, like any good soft-porn film, the sex scenes are shoe-horned in every so often just to remind us that we are watching a "Fifty Shades" film. None of them are particularly interesting or necessary and they quickly get repetitive. This time around, gone is the playful chemistry between the two leads. The incredibly awful dialogue doesn't help the characters grow in any real way. Dakota Johnson, who was once a promising young actress who perfectly portrayed Ana's mousy, uncomfortable-yet-confident spirit in the first film, has been revealed to possess little more since then; she can't quite carry the heftier scenes in this film, and her performance in the recent "A Bigger Splash" was Razzie-worthy. Dornan too, has lost his edge, or as one character in this film describes it, "He has everything except a sense of humor." Surely, if he wasn't filthy rich, he would just be filthy, and would have probably been thrown in jail and labeled a pervert long ago.
What is missing most obviously of all is a sense of confidence. The performances, the direction, and even the dopey pop songs that are cued every time Ana's panties drop just all reek with a lack of confidence and style that the first film seemed to possess. It's understandable, how can you be confident in this material? Just when you think things can't get more laughable, Christian Grey's helicopter goes missing, and while the family gathers around the TV to drink tea and quietly wonder if he survived, he enters the room, just as the reporter breaks with the news that he was found alive. His family doesn't even bother to ask him what happened, as they promptly exit the room so he can have sex with Ana. This tops an earlier scene where Christian has Ana wear some interestingly-placed beads while they attend a charity ball. It's uncomfortable for more than just Ana.
Again, the beauty of calling something a "guilty pleasure" is that you know it's bad, but are free to enjoy it on your own terms. Fans of the series probably weren't asking for much out of "Fifty Shades Darker," and they received exactly that. But the air of disappointment surrounding this film can't be denied. Here is a franchise that has made smutty romances incredibly popular, and that has shed light on sexual practices that have long been taboo. Instead of this series building on its intrigue and its potential for pushing the boundaries of romantic cinema, it has become a torturous and painful experience to bear, and not in a good way.
Genre: Drama, Romance
Runtime: 1 hour, 58 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Bella Heathcote, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden
Based on the book by E.L. James
Directed by James Foley ("Perfect Stranger," "The Chamber," "Fear," "Two Bits," "Glengarry Glen Ross")
Opens locally on Friday, Feb 10, 2017 (check for showtimes).