“I want you back. We can renegotiate terms.”
The above line is delivered to Anastasia Steele by Christian Grey near the beginning of Fifty Shades Darker, the second movie adaptation of the trilogy of zillion-selling erotic novels by Erika Mitchell (pen name E. L. James). But one imagines similar words being spoken by executives of Universal Pictures to Mitchell herself following the completion of the first installment in the series, Fifty Shades of Grey.
That film was directed by the respected artist Sam (short for Samantha) Taylor-Johnson, and she and Mitchell reportedly fought over almost every aspect of the production, the latter having been granted uncommon creative control when she signed over the rights to her books. The result was a very bad movie, but one considerably less bad than the book it was based on.
This time out, Taylor-Johnson has been replaced with gun-for-hire James Foley, best known for directing Glengarry Glen Ross a very long time ago; meanwhile, the previous screenwriter, Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), has been replaced by Niall Leonard, a television writer who also happens to be Mitchell’s husband. The result is that there is no one to mediate or improve Mitchell’s appallingly crass, childish, and retrograde exercise in wish fulfillment.
A movie this bad deserves to have its flaws enunciated clearly, so what follows is one in a periodic series of spoilereviews. (Past examples of the genre included Lucy, Fantastic Four, The Happening, and The Gunman.) Those who would prefer to avoid spoilers should stop reading now; those who want a sense of the awfulness to come, or would rather spend a few minutes reading about that awfulness than two hours experiencing it firsthand, read on.
1. A brief catchup for those joining the story midstream. In the last movie, Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), a virginal 21-year-old college student, was swept off her feet by Christian (Jamie Dornan), a 27-year-old billionaire entrepreneur with the abs of an underwear model. An S&M enthusiast, he made her sign a contract to be his “submissive.” Eventually, after a lot of tame bondage sex and one serious whipping, she left him.
2. Which brings us to the present film. Ana, now graduated, has just gotten a job as an assistant at an independent Seattle book publisher. Accordingly, she receives a couple of dozen stunning white roses from Christian in congratulation. She briefly contemplates throwing them out, then changes her mind and keeps them. Get used to this particular two-step when it comes to Ana’s tentative gestures toward almost-independence.
3. Ana attends a photography exhibition by a friend, José (Victor Rasuk), only to find that, to her surprise, it is filled with wall-sized portraits of herself.
3a. This is a good moment to note that virtually all the men in this movie are gross (even when they’re not presented as such) and treat Ana as an object. José is a perfect example. In theory, he’s supposed to be a good guy. Yet he fills his show with pictures of Ana without her knowledge or permission and then sells them for his own considerable profit. Who knows what kind of pervy stalker might be buying those prints?
4. Well, we do, of course: It’s Christian. He shows up at the exhibit, buys all the photos, and begs Ana to go to dinner with him. She agrees, “but only because I’m hungry.” At the restaurant, when he orders steak for her, she contradicts him and asks for the quinoa salad instead. This will prove to be one of vanishingly few occasions on which she gets what she wants, rather than putting up token resistance and then letting Christian have his way.
5. Ana explains that she left him following last movie’s whipping in his Red Room of Pain, because “you were getting off on the pain you inflicted.” I feel obligated to note that this is the exact phrasing used by Steve Martin in the song “Dentist!” from Little Shop of Horrors, making Christian literally a knockoff of a parody of a sadist.
6. Nonetheless, Ana is clearly warming back up. It seems to help that after the dinner date, Christian gives her a brand-new iPhone and MacBook, as if he were some creepy blend of Santa Claus and Steve Jobs.
7. As noted, one way the movie tries to make Christian seem less creepy is by making all the other men creepy, too. Chief among them is Ana’s boss at the publishing house, Jack (Eric Johnson), who leers at her so ostentatiously that he might as well be wearing a T-shirt that says “sexual harasser.” He pressures her to go out for drinks. She declines, citing plans. He takes her out for drinks anyway.
8. At the bar they run into Christian, and he and Jack face off with proprietary zeal. “I’m the boyfriend,” says Christian. “I’m the boss,” says Jack. It is clear at this moment—and will only become clearer over time—that the movie considers these two words completely interchangeable.
9. Christian and Ana leave the bar and she tells him she’s upset with the way he insulted her boss. Christian explains, “He wants what’s mine.” That evening Christian tells her that he plans to buy the publishing house. “So you’ll be my boss?” she asks. (What did I tell you?) He replies, “Technically, I’ll be your boss’s boss’s boss.” Ana is momentarily unhappy about his insinuating himself into her work life. Then they have sex anyway.
10. The next day she asks him to take back a check he gave her for $24,000. He tells her to keep it, as he makes that much money every 15 minutes. She rips up the check. He calls his office and has $24,000 direct-deposited into her checking account. She is briefly upset that he knows her bank account information. But then he invites her to a masked ball his parents are throwing, and everything is okay again.
11. He takes her to have her hair done at a salon run by the older woman, Elena (Kim Basinger), who long ago initiated him into S&M. Ana is furious and wants to go home. He tells her to come to his house instead, adding, “You can either walk or I’ll carry you.” She opts for walking. This is, I kid you not, presented as a victory of self-determination for her. (He will, however, carry her over his shoulder at multiple other points in the movie.)
12. Back at his apartment, she discovers that he’s had private detectives follow her and fill an extensive dossier with her comings and goings. Moreover, he’s done this with other “prospective submissives” as well. In a rare moment of lucidity, she tells him, “This isn’t a relationship, it’s ownership.” He tells her to come to his bedroom. She replies, “Sex is not going to fix this right now. Are you insane?” Still, she goes to his bedroom. Sex fixes it.
13. There are several more such episodes between Christian and Ana, but for the sake of brevity, let’s not belabor the point. He tells her what to do; she rebels halfheartedly for a moment and then settles for 90 to 100 percent of his original demand, however unreasonable.
14. Before taking her to his parents’ Venetian-themed masked ball, he has her insert some ben-wa balls. Because that’s what you do before a fancy event at your parents’ house.
14a. A quick rundown of the sex. In addition to the ben-wa balls, Christian outfits Ana once with a spreader bar. He shows her nipple clamps, though they go unused. He spanks her. He fondles her in an elevator. They have sex in his childhood bedroom. They have sex in the shower, twice. This is all meant to be shocking and transgressive, but it’s about as dull and unsexy as it is possible for sex to be. Basinger herself pushed the envelope further 30 years ago in 9½ Weeks.
15. Christian takes Ana out on his grand three-masted yacht. She is amazed when he lets her hold the wheel while she sits on his lap and he guides her hands. “I can’t believe I’m doing this! I’m the captain!” she enthuses. A reminder: This character is meant to be in her twenties, not eight years old.
16. Back at work, Ana’s boss Jack tells her she has to go on a business trip with him to New York. When she tells Christian, he forbids it. She explains that it’s necessary for her job. He says that if anyone is going to take her to New York it will be him. I initially took this to be a compromise in which she would go on her business trip and Christian would accompany her. (Yes: domineering, possessive, and mistrustful—but still a compromise.)
17. I was, of course, wrong. The next day Ana tells Jack that she can’t go to New York, pretending that she has a prior commitment.
18. Lest we start to believe that Christian’s jealous sabotaging of Ana’s career makes him a bad guy, Jack shows what a real bad guy looks. The long-awaited sexual harassment and assault take place, with Jack telling Ana, “I just think if you’re going to fuck your way to prominence you do it with someone who makes you smarter, not just richer.”
19. Ana knees Jack in the balls and rushes out of her office into Christian’s arms. Christian immediately calls in a favor from a friend and has Jack fired. No one spends one second wondering whether this is the best way—as opposed to, say, filing a report, talking to HR, or pressing charges—to deal with workplace assault.
20. But now that Jack’s been fired, who will take over as fiction editor? His assistant Ana, of course. After one staff meeting in which she recommends that the publishing house seek out “new voices,” she’s given the job by the editor-in-chief.
20a. Said editor-in-chief is, of course, a man. I’ve wracked my brains without luck to come up with a single moment in the film in which a man is presented as subordinate to a woman. Men are bosses; women are assistants and housekeepers and submissives.
20b. Everyone celebrates Ana’s great achievement in becoming fiction editor. No one seems to recall or care that it was the direct result of Christian having had her boss fired.
21. A former submissive of Christian’s (Bella Heathcote) who’s been stalking the couple shows up at Ana’s apartment with a gun. The two women take turns trying to be more pitiable than one another. Ana: “I’m nothing.” Stalker: “I know you love him. I do, too. We all do.”
22. Christian again arrives to save the day. He commands the stalker to kneel, and when she obeys, he puts his hand on her head as one might on a disobedient dog’s. He orders Ana to go to his apartment.
23. Ana goes to his apartment, but not for a couple of hours. “Where the fuck were you?” Christian demands, expressing his tender concern for her well-being.
24. Christian explains to Ana, “I’m not a dominant. The correct word is a sadist. I get off on punishing women that look like you, that look like—” Ana interrupts him: “Your mother.” Later, Christian asks Ana to marry him. There is no sign that she considers the former admission any serious obstacle to the latter proposition.
25. When Christian repeats his proposal a second time, Ana replies “Why me?” This is in fact an excellent question. In the books, it essentially answers itself: She is the first-person narrator, and as such implicitly rooted for. (We are all our own first-person narrators, and for the most part imagine we have due whatever might come to us.) Onscreen it’s harder to say, except that she seems to have the precise ratio of momentary defiance followed by total capitulation that Christian requires.
26. Christian has to take a business trip to Portland with a female subordinate (I know: redundant). While he’s flying his own helicopter back, the engine explodes and the chopper begins falling out of the sky. Back in Seattle, his friends and family are horrified by TV news reports that Christian is missing and presumed dead. Oh no! This isn’t going to be like season three of Downton Abbey, where the happy ending is spoiled in the final minutes by the leading man’s sudden, completely accidental demise?
27. Of course it’s not. Christian walks in the front door unscathed. Everyone is so happy that nobody even thinks to ask why he didn’t phone ahead to say he was safe, or alert the authorities who, according to the television, are still searching for his remains in the woods of Washington state. This may be the single feeblest late-act bid for suspense I’ve ever seen.
28. Ana accepts Christian’s proposal by giving him a keychain that says “yes” on the back. She asks him to take her back to the Red Room of Pain. There, with great ceremony, he subjects her to … massage oil? Really? Is that the naughtiest concluding kink this franchise can come up with? Ana may need to find herself a more committed pervert.
29. At his birthday party, Christian tells everyone they’re getting married. All are overjoyed, except for the wicked Elena, who confronts Ana. Christian again comes to the rescue, declaring, “You taught me how to fuck, Elena. She taught me how to love.” I can see the Hallmark card already. Christian takes Ana to a greenhouse filled with flowers to offer a proper proposal, including a ring with a diamond the size of a nickel. There are fireworks. Literally.
30. But danger still looms for next year’s upcoming sequel, Fifty Shades Freed. Watching the fireworks from a nearby hill is Ana’s old boss, Jack. Now you might think that an unemployed former book editor does not really make for the most terrifying of villains. But he’s smoking a cigarette. And it looks like he hasn’t shaved for days …