Fifty Shades DarkerReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/11/17 03:25:38
After staggering out of the theater after the screening of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the 2015 screen adaptation of E.L. James’s improbably successful slab of mommy porn, I comforted myself with the thought that even though Universal had already announced plans to film the two followup books, it would be virtually impossible for those films to plumb the same depths of staggering ineptitude as their predecessor. Well, having seen the first of the sequels, “Fifty Shades Darker,” I have to step up and humbly admit that in this particular case, I was dead wrong in that assessment because this one is so awful—so badly constructed, ineptly acted and staggeringly unsexy—that it almost makes the original seem like some kind of classic by comparison. Admittedly, I am not exactly a part of the target audience for this particular franchise but I would find it very hard to believe that even those actually liked the first film—such people presumably exist, though I have yet to meet any of them—could possibly come away from this misfired exercise in pseudo-kink thinking that it was anything other than a botch and if there anyone that does, it must mean that they are even better at absorbing punishment than any of the nitwits on the screen.At the conclusion of the previous film, Seattle’s most utterly bewitching doormat, aspiring writer Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) had finally been pushed to her emotional and sexual limits (not necessarily in that order) by her boyfriend, the creepy, domineering but oh-so-rich-and-hunky billionaire S&M fanatic Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and walked out on him with a resolve to have nothing more to do with him or his weird ways. As “Darker” opens, about three weeks have passed before Christian reenters Anastasia’s life—he buys up all the giant photographic portraits of her in an exhibition staged by a friend because “I don’t like strangers gawking at you.” Well, with smooth patter like that, how could any woman say no and indeed, Anastasia puts up what only her mother might consider to be a token resistance before returning to him. This time, however, things will be different “No rules, no punishments and no more secrets,” she insists. Of course, this wouldn’t be “Fifty Shades” if that were the case and before too long, they have once again resumed a relationship in which he calls (and delivers) pretty much all the shots and she overlooks his weirder aspects and allows him to spank her and insert various paraphernalia into her nether regions in exchange for rides on his yacht, among other things. Sure, she puts up the occasional mild protest but for the most part, as feminist icons go, Anastasia Steele ranks slightly behind Virginia Slim.
Alas, the course of true love, or whatever one might dub this particular permutation, never runs especially smooth and any number of obstacles pop up throughout to threaten Anastasia’s happiness and whatever it is that Christian is experiencing—based solely on visual cues provided here, I am leaning towards mono. One of Christian’s former submissives (Bella Heathcoate) begins stalking Anastasia, who eventually tells him that she was accosted on the street outside her office by a strange woman with bandaged wrists who knew who she was and that, in hindsight, it did seems a little odd. Things are hardly safer inside the office as Anastasia goes to work as the assistant to a hot-shot book publisher with the subtle name of Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), a sleaze who represents the horror that is sexual brutality performed by someone whose bank account isn’t quite large enough to make up for the other stuff. Also turning up is Elena (Kim Basinger), the previously mentioned but unseen Mrs. Robinson who introduced Christian into the world of sexual domination when he was a mere teenager and seems determined to keep the spurs in him to this day. And if all of that wasn’t enough, the film even manages include an utterly inexplicable helicopter crash sequence that feels as if someone dropped in some outtakes from “Sliver” into the mix, albeit none of the good ones.
As bad as “Fifty Shades of Grey” was, it almost comes across as a model of dramatic integrity and erotic tension in comparison to “Darker,” a film that is so ineptly conceived and executed that the people making it almost seem contemptuous of the material—in the case of screenwriter Niall Leonard, this could prove to be a bit awkward because he is also the husband of E.L. James. The story is basically a repeat of the dramatic arc of the previous story but since we have already seen our heroine take this journey before, it loses even the minimal impact that it was able to muster the first time around. To make matters more irritating, this is, of course, the middle story of a trilogy (the third has already been shot and a brief trailer pops up during the end credits. As for the new characters who are thrown into the mix, they make so little difference to the proceedings that they barely seem to exist. As for the sex scenes, they are so bereft of any recognizable erotic heat that to watch Anastasia and Christian going at it is not unlike watching a Cub Scout rubbing two damp sticks together in the vain hope of eventually creating sparks. Worst of all, the film has absolutely no sense of humor about itself or its soapy extremes (even the first film had one scene, the one in which Anastasia negotiates the contract stipulating what she will and won’t do, that showed a certain degree of wit an self-awareness) and the painfully serious tonal approach to the increasingly ludicrous material means, of course, that the film is a treasure trove of bad laughs. (The biggest one comes during an ostensibly powerful dramatic revelation scene that is severely undercut by the weirdly prominent framing of a “Chronicles of Riddick” poster.) In other words, anyone hoping that the insertion of James Foley, the man who made such powerful films as “At Close Range,” “After Dark, My Sweet” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” into the director’s chair would result in a somewhat more competent filmmaking experience will be among the many who come away from this one feeling profoundly disappointed.
Of course, in those movies, Foley was working with such powerful actors as Sean Penn, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin and Bruce Dern. Here, he is stuck with the less-than-dynamic duo of Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, a pairing that will one day go into legend as a prime example of cinematic anti-chemistry. As one of the less inspiring fictional heroines of our time, Dakota Johnson is terrible, though to be fair, it is hard to imagine any actress being able to make the material she is working with here seem even remotely plausible. More distressingly, the sly sense of humor that she was able to occasionally display the first time around (most notably in the aforementioned contract scene) is nowhere to be found here and she looks more bored than consumed by erotic heat. That said, she is aces when compared to Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian as if he is really auditioning to portray Patrick Bateman in a remake of “American Psycho”—whether he is supposed to come across as arrogant, romantic or vulnerable, he just seems creepy throughout and in any normal film, his presence would provoke shivers of fear and revulsion coupled with a desire for the real hero to show up and rescue Anastasia from his clutches. None of the supporting players come off especially well either—as the increasingly deranged book editor, Eric Johnson is shockingly terrible and unconvincing while Bella Heathcoate and Kim Basinger (whose presence suggests a “9 1/2 Weeks” joke that the film never gets around to telling) are both completely wasted on nothing parts. Once again, pop starlet Rita Ora turns up in a few scenes as Christian’s sister Mia and while she has an undeniably engaging presence, I am still at a complete loss to explain what she or her character is even supposed to be doing in them.“Fifty Shades Darker” is a film so profoundly awful that no one involved with it comes out looking good—not even Taylor Swift, who contributed a new song, a duet with Zayn, to the soundtrack only to find it being used to score the all-important sailing montage instead of one of the allegedly Good Parts. (Then again, compared to the rest, perhaps this scene actually does constitute one of the Good Parts.) Like the first film, it is paralyzingly boring, poorly written and executed and features characters that are so plastic and unconvincing that you almost expect the full title to be “The LEGO Fifty Shades Darker.” The only bright side to any of this is that we have only one more of these to plow through before this sorry franchise comes to a merciful end. Hopefully in the next installment, Anastasia will finally come to her senses, kick Christian’s whiny, moody and creepy ass to the curb and run off with Mia instead in search of some Totino’s pizza rolls. Hey, after all the punishment brought on by these films, don’t you think a critic deserves a little bit of pleasure as a reward?
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