By Jeff Boudreaux
From the annals of “Twilight” fan-fiction, comes the second installment in E.L. James’s sadomasochistic tribute to the timeless love story of Edward and Bella – “Fifty Shades Darker,” continuing the romance (and sex…lots and lots of sex) between Seattle business magnate Christian Grey and the woman he cannot live without – Anastasia Steele. Seriously, the Greys are indeed the Cullens, right down to Mrs. Grey (Marcia Gay Harden) and her whole nuclear-adoptive family, including an older version of Peter Facinelli’s “Carlisle” (Christian’s father) and his fun “daughter” Mia (a.k.a. Alice). But I digress. Stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan reprise their roles from 2015’s mega-hit “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and while the suspense factor is turned up a notch (mainly because of two non-surprisingly volatile character additions), the film doesn’t do itself any favors with its laughable dialogue and perfectly-timed sexual interludes (about every 15 minutes). But, who am I kidding? That’s what you all came to see, and see you shall.
Anastasia is doing rather well since we last caught up with her (i.e. when she left Christian at the end of the last film). She’s an assistant editor for a publishing firm in the great city of Seattle, and she definitely impresses her boss Jack (Eric Johnson). After all, what’s not to like? Ana is a fun, bright and beautiful woman, which is why Christian is dead-set on getting her back…all the while insulting her boss and making demands that affect her career. What could possibly be different this time around if the two do, in fact, get back together? Well, there are no contracts or terms to be agreed upon, and Ana certainly yearns for a return to Christian’s playroom. Nothing seems to be off limits in their new relationship, except for the cigarette-burned lithograph otherwise known as Christian’s chest, which he so kindly has her outline in lipstick right before a masquerade ball! C’mon, we all knew this guy wasn’t quite playing with a full deck, so to speak. However, we finally get the backstory that us non-readers have been waiting two years for, and it isn’t pretty. Yes, our beloved Mr. Grey was a victim of child abuse, both physically and presumably of a sexual nature, by his biological mother and her ever-revolving door of scumbags.
So what on Earth could conceivably go wrong when Ana and Christian start dating again? Well, let’s see. Horrid abusers and “abusees” from Christian’s past start coming back to haunt him, such as salon-owner Elena (Kim Basinger), the woman who introduced him to distorted sexual encounters as a teenager and who is definitely not a fan of sweet Anastasia. There’s also a strange, dirty young woman (Bella Heathcote) who follows the reunited couple everywhere, and who is also not happy about Ana’s role in Christian’s life. Lastly, a man is going around carrying a picture of Christian, and he certainly doesn’t act as if he’s about to start a chapter of his fan club! Add all of this to the fact that Christian is having nightmares, and keeps reliving the pain from his childhood, each and every night. With the help of the woman he adores, will Christian finally put his demons to rest or will outside interference threaten their very existence?
One thing that this film attempts to do is to showcase a more human side to Christian Grey as he undertakes a significant journey from sadistic weirdo to loving boyfriend. Through glimpses of his room in his parents’ house, we even find out that he likes “The Chronicles of Riddick” and UFC! I don’t know, maybe it’s just Dornan’s acting but I find him terribly stiff in a role that he should have settled comfortably into by now. I much preferred him in the excellent WWII drama “Anthropoid,” although he probably didn’t have that many lines. I am, however, firmly of the camp that Dakota Johnson is perfect in this role, and they do manage to pull off the necessary chemistry for their scenes together, although I longed for better direction, for sensuality as opposed to gratuitousness. Maybe it’s because once-prolific Director James Foley (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Fear”) hasn’t helmed a theatrical feature in a decade. Or quite possibly it’s because the source material isn’t the sexual masterpiece that it’s cracked up to be. For a much better example of what superior erotic cinema is supposed to look like, check out “Intimacy” from 2001, starring Mark Rylance (Best Supporting Actor 2016) or 2013’s “Blue is the Warmest Colour,” with Léa Seydoux.
Now, I do think that the masquerade scene was the best part of the film, even though it kept bringing to mind a much-more explicit, yet similarly-themed scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” which by the way, was much sexier than this film! Kudos to singer Jose James, however, for doing a dynamic job of belting out standards such as Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” at the party. Very classy, indeed. I can still honestly say that my interest is properly piqued for the final installment, “Fifty Shades Freed,” especially since they actually put a teaser trailer in the middle of the closing credits. (You hear that? Stay and watch the credits, I always do!) I’m just hoping…no, I’m praying that the third-and-final book isn’t split into two films like so many other subpar Hollywood narratives of the last several years. While “Fifty Shades Darker” is certainly a weaker film than its predecessor, for all of its faults it is still an enjoyable movie…just not a very good one.
*1/2 (one and a half out of four stars)