For reasons that are now obscure to me—and were by definition ill-conceived—I read Fifty Shades of Grey at that terrible moment in American history when it seemed that everyone else was reading it too. I don’t believe that I read either of the book’s sequels, though I can’t attest to that with much confidence. Suffice to say that I made either the wise decision to skip them or the only marginally less-wise decision to repress all memory of them.
But writing about movies is something I’m paid to do, and occasionally that entails a degree of professional self-sacrifice. This week, the name of that sacrifice is Fifty Shades Freed.
The third and final—let’s pause and savor that word for a moment—adaptation of the “erotic romance” novel series by Erika Mitchell (pen name: E. L. James), Fifty Shades Freed is precisely as atrocious as one might imagine. Which is to say, it is far worse than the first movie—which, though awful, in hindsight looks like Citizen Kane, only with more discussion of dildos. I’d place the new film more or less on a par with the second one, Fifty Shades Darker, which makes sense given that both were filmed concurrently, were directed by James Foley (whose principal recommendation is that he directed Glengarry Glen Ross many, many years ago), and were adapted by Niall Leonard (whose principal recommendation is that he is married to Erika Mitchell).
The good news—and, yes, we are grading on a curve so steep that it’s essentially a vertical drop—is that Fifty Shades Freed is marginally less retrograde and offensive than Fifty Shades Darker. The bad news is that it is even more idiotic, which is in its way a remarkable achievement.
In any case, like its predecessor, it is eminently deserving of one in my occasional series of spoilereviews: a linear enunciation of all the stupid elements of the film that I managed to scribble into my notebook during the screening. (Other examples of the microgenre have included Lucy, Fantastic Four, The Happening, and The Gunman.) To be clear: What follows will give away as many plot developments as possible, as it is intended to serve as an alternative to actually seeing the movie. But I feel confident that the universe of people who would like to laugh at this film is considerably larger than the universe of those who are actually willing to sit through it. So here goes.
1. To catch up anyone who is either unfamiliar with the series or as adept as I may be in the art of repression: In the first film, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a virginal college student, was persuaded by the billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) to become his S&M sexual “submissive.” She rebelled vaguely at the end of the film, only to be successfully wooed again in the second, which largely set aside the naughty S&M theme that had been the entire rationale for the enterprise in the first place. (Its “climax” was that Christian took Ana to his Red Room of Pain and … applied massage oil.) The only other bits that I think were of any importance are that 1) Ana’s boss at the Seattle publishing house where she worked sexually assaulted her, so Christian pulled strings to have him fired; and 2) Christian proposed marriage, offering a ring large enough to double as a bocce ball, and Ana accepted.
2. So Fifty Shades Freed opens with a wedding. We watch the gorgeous lace of Ana’s wedding dress being buttoned; we marvel at the hefty, masculine majesty of Christian’s cuff links. Alas, their vows are heartbreakingly conventional: “I promise to love, trust, and protect you”; “I give you my hand and my heart, for as long as we both shall live.” Boo! Where are the references to domination and submission, to flogging and spanking, to the Red Room? What movie is this?
3. After some dancing, Christian tells Ana, “Let’s get out of here. I’m sick of sharing you with all the riff-raff.” Not to get all class warrior here, but that may not be the best phrase for a billionaire to throw around with his now billionaire-by-marriage wife. It sounds a tad, let us say, Steve Mnuchin-y.
4. Christian whisks Ana to the airport, where a private jet is waiting. “You own this?” she asks, incredulous. Hello? He’s spent two movies taking her up in gliders and helicopters and out on million-dollar sailboats. She’s surprised he has a private jet? Ana actually seems to remember what happened in those films even less than I do.
5. Paris! If the Eiffel Tower didn’t give it away, the movie adds the Arc de Triomphe as a secondary clue. They go to the opera. They hold hands. They have tasteful, from-a-distance, no-nudity sex. This may be the worst advertisement for marriage of all time. Your most conservative grandparent is probably getting bored about now.
6. They continue on to the Côte d’Azur. At a topless beach, Ana wants to take off her bikini top, but lifelong-pervert-turned-sudden-prude Christian forbids it. When he goes for a swim, she takes her top off anyway, which may be the most self-actualized thing she’s done in all the movies combined. Progress, I guess.
7. They go back to the luxury yacht they’re staying on. Christian, still peeved that Ana disobeyed him re: toplessness, pulls out handcuffs. She seems aghast. Once again, it appears that she has no recollection of the previous two movies. Is there a roofie subtext to the whole trilogy that is never made explicit?
8. Alas, the honeymoon is cut short. A female subordinate of Christian’s calls to tell him that someone broke into his company’s “server room” and detonated an “explosive device.” Watching the security footage, Ana recognizes the intruder as Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), the former boss who attacked her and was essentially fired by Christian. “Why would he do that?” Ana asks. Really? Crazy or not, his motive seems pretty self-evident. Or is it?
8a. Yes, Jack “Hyde” easily wins the otherwise-close competition for most ridiculously metaphorical surname.
8b. As I noted in the spoilereview for the previous movie, with the exception of security guards, virtually all subordinates in the Fifty Shades universe are female. I may be missing some small exception somewhere, but perhaps the most consistently clear message of the whole series is that women always work for men and not the reverse.
9. Back at Christian’s penthouse apartment in Seattle, Ana meets the staff and is flabbergasted at the question of how she wishes to “run the household.” I swear she was unconscious throughout the first two movies. How I envy her.
10. Ana dismisses the cook for the night because she wants to make dinner. Christian: “I could get used to you in the kitchen.” Ana: “Barefoot and pregnant?” Christian is obviously nonplussed by this response, and it doesn’t appear that it’s over Ana’s possible neglect of footwear. This is what in introductory screenwriting classes is called foreshadowing.
11. Ana shows up at work at the publishing house that exists to imply that she has a “job” even though she almost never seems to perform it. There she learns that she has been promoted to “fiction editor.” A subordinate, Liz (of course: a woman), tartly points out that the promotion occurred despite the fact that “you weren’t even here.”
11a. Unless I’m sorely mistaken, Ana was already promoted to fiction editor in the last movie, after Christian fired the previous fiction editor, her sexually assaulting then-boss, Jack. Maybe she was only acting fiction editor? Or maybe this movie has no better sense of what’s already transpired than Ana herself?
11b. It’s also very much worth noting that in the last movie Christian purchased the publishing house where Ana works, becoming, as they joke repeatedly, her “boss’s boss’s boss.” (Funny!) Could this have played a role in Ana’s meteoric rise from just-graduated newbie assistant to senior editor? Duh, although no one seems to notice but that cranky subordinate Liz. (More on her later.) One could almost imagine Fifty Shades Freed having a deeper, subversive level, in which the wildly rich, constantly self-indulgent Ana and Christian are the villains, and their many lower-income foils and employees are the heroes. But this is a movie that could hardly make more conspicuous that it doesn’t have “levels.”
12. Christian barges into Ana’s office, as he frequently does. He’s mad that she hasn’t changed her email address to “Anastasia Grey.” She explains that she wants to use her maiden name at work and that she loves her job. He explains that she “can’t love it as Anastasia Steele.” (Lest we forget, he is her boss’s boss’s boss, after all.) He adds that she got her job “through hard work and talent.” Pretty much everyone at the screening I attended laughed.
13. He shows her his fancy new product-placed Audi sports car. She pleads, “Can I drive? Let me drive. Let me drive it.” He ignores her and drives it himself.
14. He takes her to a beautiful lakeside mansion, and she says she feels as though she’s been there before. He reminds her that she saw it when they were out on the sailboat in the previous movie, so he bought it for her.
15. He’s hired an architect, Gia, who meets them at the house. She is beautiful and clearly has her eyes on Christian. Will she be the foil/complication that this limp film so desperately needs? No, she will not. This is the only time we see her, although characters will refer back to how wonderful her breasts are on multiple occasions.
16. Gia wants to tear down the entire mansion and replace it with an ultra-modern “smart home” featuring self-cleaning windows. Ana hates this idea and hates the way Gia looks at Christian, so she tells her, “You may call me Mrs. Grey. Or you can get back into your shit-colored car and drive back to Seattle.” It’s genuinely head-spinning how quickly Ana has changed her mind on the whole surname question and gone from Nice Girl Next Door to Nasty Entitled Rich Person. But at least she doesn’t call Gia “riff-raff.”
17. Christian is so impressed with Ana’s transformation that he allows her to drive the car. That puts him a full four months ahead of Saudi Arabia, which has announced that it is rescinding its ban on women drivers in June. Delighted at her newfound right, Ana enthuses, “I’m a race-car driver!” Attentive viewers may notice the echo of the last movie, in which Christian let her take the wheel of the sailboat and she gushed, “I can’t believe I’m doing this! I’m the captain!”
18. A mysterious SUV starts tailing them—is it Jack?—leading to what may be the least dynamic car chase committed to celluloid since the retirement of the Model T. After losing the SUV, they pull into a parking lot. Ana climbs onto Christian’s lap and they have sex. Ana giggles.
19. Christian needs to go to New York for meetings. Ana offers to give him a haircut and asks where the scissors are. He says they’re in his desk, and when she goes to look for them she finds a revolver. Is this an example of the dramatic principle of “Chekhov’s gun”? Of course it is. While Ana cuts Christian’s hair, he gropes her. She giggles.
20. Christian, concerned about the possible threat from Jack, makes Ana promise to come directly home from work while he’s out of town. Instead, she goes out drinking with her friend Kate. When she gets back to the apartment, Jack is waiting for her with a kitchen knife. Luckily, he’s captured by Ana’s two security guards. One says, “You better restrain him.” The other replies: “I don’t have anything.” Ana announces: “We do.” This is the high point of the movie so far, and perhaps the only intentionally comic moment of the series to date.
20a. It’s worth noting that Jack, whose only job that we’re aware of was as a fiction editor, has essentially become a super-criminal, capable of penetrating extensive security to attack Christian’s corporate office and very nearly kidnap his wife. Keep this in mind the next time you piss off a fiction editor.
21. When Ana wakes up, Christian is back and is angrily morning-drinking. Later on, he will take her to the Red Room and torment her with a vibrator without allowing her sexual release. He explains that this is how he feels when she doesn’t do what he asks. It doesn’t seem like a very apt comparison.
22. Ana and Christian puzzle over why Jack (now incarcerated) has been out to get them. Once again, does anyone remember the previous movie, in which they had him fired for sexual assault, effectively ending his career?
23. Ana is back at work when Christian shows up unannounced. “I think you deserve a break,” he declares, before bundling her onto a plane to Aspen. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Ana’s job at the publishing house is simply to wait around until Christian barges in crankily or whisks her away for an impromptu vacation.
23a. Could this last detail be semi-autobiographical? If the fiction editor in charge of Erika Mitchell’s Fifty Shades novels spent all of her time on vacation, it might help explain the books’ overall quality.
24. Ana and Christian are in Aspen, along with his brother, Elliott, her friend Kate—the two are dating—his sister, Mia, and her boyfriend. Christian plays “Maybe I’m Amazed” on the piano and sings, faux soulfully. Mia’s boyfriend, speaking for the entire filmgoing audience, says, “Maybe I’ve heard enough.” This is the movie’s second high point. There won’t be a third.
25. Ana has a nightmare about Jack. Christian wakes up to find her in the kitchen eating ice cream. She spoons some onto his chest and licks it off. He spoons some onto her inner thighs and licks it off. They have sex on the table. Ana giggles. Look, I’m all for having fun during sex, but if I were Christian I’d be concerned about the fact that Ana giggles every time he drops trou.
26. Christian’s security guard has done a background check on Jack and determined that before coming to Seattle he was also a fiction editor in New York and Chicago. (That’s probably how he learned to be a criminal mastermind.) Also, he was in and out of foster homes in Detroit. Christian says, “So was I.” To quote the great Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: “What a crazy random happenstance.”
27. Elliott proposes to Kate, but not before mentioning how promiscuous he was before he met her. Pro tip, fellas: Leave that part out.
28. Back in Seattle, Christian takes Ana to the Red Room and has her choose one of his assortment of butt plugs. Later, at work, she reminisces about the experience. So I guess that’s a third thing her job entails. Meanwhile, a judge releases Jack on bail for no discernable reason whatsoever.
29. Ana goes to the gynecologist. It turns out she has repeatedly forgotten to take her contraceptive shots and is now six to seven weeks pregnant. But cut her some slack: It’s hard to stay on top of every little bit of life maintenance when you spend all your time taking vacations and fantasizing about butt plugs.
30. Ana tells Christian about the pregnancy over dinner. He’s furious. (Remember his “barefoot and pregnant” response?) He stays out late and gets drunk, and when he returns Ana learns that he’s been out with Elena Lincoln, the older woman who seduced him into S&M when he was 15. Now she’s angry and locks herself in the Red Room to sleep. The fact that this is what it’s now being used for tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the erotic quotient of the movie.
31. Ana tells Christian, “Babies happen when you have sex.” A more accurate formulation would be, “Babies happen when you have sex and can’t be bothered to keep up with a form of contraception that is specifically designed for its extreme ease of use.”
32. At work, Ana gets a call from Jack, who has kidnapped Christian’s sister, Mia. Ana must get him $5 million dollars in cash within a few hours or he’ll kill her. Ana mustn’t tell Christian.
33. Are you bored yet? I am. After all, the whole point of this exercise is to take less time than the movie itself. So let’s cut to the chase. Through comically absurd machinations, Ana gets the money and meets Jack at an abandoned building on the edge of town. It turns out he has an accomplice: Liz, the subordinate who thought it odd that Ana got a big promotion despite not having been in the office for weeks. Jack punches and kicks Ana. But she brought the pistol from the desk—thank you, Chekhov!—and shoots Jack in the leg. The police arrive as Ana passes out.
34. After Ana returns home from the hospital, she and Christian receive more information about Jack. It turns out that—wait for it—he and Christian spent time in the same foster home in Detroit when they were kids. Christian was adopted by a rich family, while Jack was left behind, destined for a life of drudgery and destitution as a high-end fiction editor. That’s why he was out to get Ana and Christian.
35. Christian feels bad about the charmed life he’s led. Ana reminds him, “You’re a man of honor. And you treat people well.” She has literally forgotten every single thing that’s happened throughout the course of these films.
36. The movie ends with a montage reminding us of all Ana and Christian’s romantic moments together. (None, notably, are from the current film.) He saves her from being run over by a bicyclist; he takes her up in a helicopter, a glider, and a private jet; he brings her out on a sailboat. It was only now that I realized: This entire trilogy has been an R-rated version of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Which raises the inevitable question: Will Christian let Ana drive the pickle car?