Fifty Shades FreedReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/10/18 07:23:22
If you ever wondered what the brilliant music video created for Taylor Swift’s hit song “Blank Space”would have been like with all of the fancy trappings left intact but without the wit, insight, strong writing, convincing performances and plausible choreography, then “Fifty Shades Freed,” the conclusion of the three-film saga based on the distinctly cut-rate but insanely popular series of books by E.L. James, will no doubt prove to be your jam. For everyone else, this astoundingly poor excuse for a story—one which, for all the huffing and puffing on display, is to honest-to-goodness erotica what Olive Garden is to authentic Italian cooking—will prove to be the low point in a trilogy that is not exactly overstuffed with highlights. At least those earlier films, “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Fifty Shades Darker,” had stuff going on in them—inane, stupid and decidedly stuff, to be sure—but enough stuff to create the vague impression that a story was being told. By comparison, this film consists of maybe twenty minutes of discernible storyline—almost all of which could have simply been folded into “Darker” without missing a beat—surrounded by endless scenes of nothing much happening enacted by a couple of actors whose key motivation throughout seems to have been the knowledge that they would never have to see each other again once it finally hit theaters.Having concluded “Darker” with hunky-but-troubled mega rich sexual sadist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) proposing to his favorite whipping girl, the winsome Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), “Fifty Shades Freed” kicks off with the two adding the bonds of matrimony to the reams of sexual paraphernalia carefully arranged in the “playroom” in Christian’s fabulously appointed luxury Seattle apartment. Following the nuptials, which are lavish enough to make most royal families seethe with jealousy , the two jet off to France for their honeymoon before settling into married life. Alas, from a dramatic standpoint, starting off from what might naturally seem to be the ideal conclusion to their story means that the film now has to scramble to find something to be about. Failing that, it just offers up a string of incidents that provide momentary conflict but largely add up to nothing much. During the honeymoon, for example, Anastasia wants to sunbathe on the beach topless but Christian disapproves. When they get back home, she wants to be able to return to her job as an insanely brilliant and successful book editor and go out with her friends but he disapproves. For a bit of variety, he buys them a lavish house in the countryside to live in and she has the put her foot down when the chesty architect (Arielle Kebbell) seems intent on giving him her own form of curb appeal. Finally, Anastasia wants to have kids and—contain your surprise—he disapproves because he doesn’t want to share her with anyone and fears that he will be a terrible father or at least deeply confused if spankings ever become an issue.
Since the movie would be over in about twenty minutes if it concentrated exclusively on these developments, the nefarious Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) comes back on the scene. What—you don’t remember the infamous Jack Hyde, perhaps the most memorable villain of our age? Well, frankly I didn’t either at first so I guess we are in the same boat. Anyway, he turned up in the previous film as Anastasia’s boss in the publishing house until he tried attacking her and lost his job and cushy life in the process. Now he is hell-bent for revenge, first somehow managing to evade Christian’s high-tech security by breaking into his office and trying to burn the joint down and then by somehow managing to evade his security by sneaking into his apartment and attempting to kidnap Anastasia on the one night he is away. That lands him in jail for a bit but thanks to some laughable legal maneuvering, he manages to make bail. Once again, Christian’s crack security team drops the ball, first by failing to inform him that his wife’s stalker has been set free and then by giving Jack the chance to kidnap his sister, Mia (Rita Ora), as part of a convoluted ransom scheme that only Anastasia can foil during the climax. This may seem pointless but since it finally gives the criminally underused Ora something to do in the film, it means that we can finally say “Christian’s sister, now your time has come.” (Yes, I know I have used that joke before but now that I finally have a legitimate opening to deploy it, there is no way I am letting it slip away.)
Of course, neither of the previous films in this series were good by even the loosest definition of the word but “Fifty Shades Free” is almost astonishing in its tediousness. I don’t know how close the screenplay by Niall Leonard hews to the original novel (but since he is also married to E.L. James, I am going to guess it doesn’t divert too much from the source material) but there is so little in the way of actual story on display here that I suspect that with all the fat trimmed, this one and “Fifty Shades Darker” could have been transformed into a single entity without losing much of anything in the process. Although this is the shortest film in the franchise, it actually feels the longest thanks to a running time that has been bloated out with endless montages, bits involving recurring supporting characters whose relation to the proceedings at hand remain as confused as ever and low-wattage sex scenes that have grown increasingly vanilla over time (and which at one point even involve the application of vanilla ice cream, but never mind) and which pale in comparison to what you can usually find on cable on an average weeknight. Returning to the director’s chair following his undistinguished work on “Darker,” James Foley—the once-interesting maker of such strong works as “At Close Range,” “After Dark, My Sweet” and “Glengarry Glenn Ross”—clearly knows that this is strictly a paycheck gig and goes about the material in the most perfunctory manner possible, giving it the kind of utterly anonymous feel that is actually a perfect fit with the equally nondescript source material.
Of course, no one goes to soft-core silliness along these lines for the intelligent screenwriting or the taut direction—they go for the Good Parts and, more importantly, they go for the chemistry between the leads that will hopefully allow those Good Parts to generate sufficient heat. Like its predecessors, “Fifty Shades Freed” fails in this respect because there is never a single moment in which it is possible to relate to Johnson and Dornan as a couple of co-workers who clearly do not like each other and yet are forced to work together because of long-term contracts that they signed before discovering their mutual incompatibility. In the big sex scenes—which aren’t that big—the two do not sizzle on the screen as much as they do poach and instead of paying attention to what is going on with their characters during these moments, I found myself more distracted by the lengths that the filmmakers went to in order to present their idea of scorching sensuality while never for a moment risking losing the commercially required “R” rating. Out of the bedroom, the two are marked by their fatal blandness—although Johnson does show a couple of instances of wit and personality here and there, watching them is like watching a photo shoot for a catalogue promoting a store patronized by people terrified of every displaying any kind of unique personal taste. The blandness extends to the rest of the cast as well, aside from Ora, who is once again mostly wasted here as Mia but who demonstrates a sense of personality that once again makes her the only person that any rational person would want to spend time with in real life. (I cannot say that the “Fifty Shades” series would have been salvageable if she had been cast as Anastasia instead of Johnson but I have a feeling she might have at least made it a little more interesting.)Although “Fifty Shades Freed” is mostly too boring to even work as camp, there are two moments where I did indeed laugh out loud and only one of them was of the inadvertent variety. In the deliberate laugh, Christian’s crack security team takes someone down and then realize that neither of them have any restraints with them, leading Anastasia to pop up with “We do!” In the inadvertent one, the film pays bizarre homage to, of all things, the feminist touchstone film “An Unmarried Woman” by having Christian sitting at a piano and singing Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” just as Jill Clayburgh did in the earlier film, effectively taking the single whitest scene in film history and somehow making it even whiter in the process. Other than that, “Fifty Shade Freed” is a top-to-bottom drag that is a sorry conclusion to one of the weakest film sagas of recent years and one which will hopefully soon be cast to the pop cultural remainder bin where it deserves to spend eternity. If you have a hankering to see a film about the shifting power dynamics within an admittedly sadomasochistic relationship, please go out and see the brilliant and incomparably sexier (despite have no actual sex in it) “Phantom Thread.” That is a film that stimulates the senses and feels alive in a way that most movies these days never manage to approach, not even a lot of the good ones. “Fifty Shade Freed,” on the other hand, is gibberish from the get go and while it will no doubt make a ton of money at the box office, it will leave anyone who actually sits through it feeling poorer when it finally and mercifully ends.
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