There is a pivotal moment in Fifty Shades Darker where our romantic hero and an unnamed female assistant—of which there are a seemingly endless supply—are flying triumphantly over the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest in Christian’s private helicopter. The aircraft begins to malfunction like a wacky balloon man outside of a car wash, filling the sky with black smoke. The hero, a sociopathic boy billionaire who has never heard the word “please,” tumbles helplessly toward the earth.
You may find yourself rooting for gravity.
Darker was inspired by the incomprehensibly popular EL James novel about a shy young woman who reads Charlotte Brontë and frequently references her “inner goddess,” a blossoming sexual avatar who alternatively “dances the merengue,” “does backflips,” and “glows so bright she could light up Portland.” The books were popular because they were smutty trash, enjoyable precisely because of the severe artistic limitations of the author, who appears not to own a thesaurus. Adapted from Twilight fan fiction, the ebook was the sort of thing you might read through your fingers, giggling at the ridiculousness of the dialogue and the unconscionably bad writing. Think of Fifty Shades as like The Room but if Tommy Wiseau were really into BDSM.
To adapt a book as atrociously written, plotted, and executed as Fifty Shades and its two sequels—Darker and Freed—would take a coy sense of self-awareness, as well as an all-in commitment to the novels’ naughtier bits. The problem with the film, directed by James Foley (Netflix’s House of Cards) is that it’s about as wily and erotic as a contractual obligation.
Jamie Dornan, who convincingly plays a serial killer on The Fall, delivers his lines like a bored housewife waiting for her weekly scheduled pound session with her husband to just be over already. The audience can practically see Dornan going over his grocery list in his head.
Darker picks up where the last film very abruptly left off. The ludicrously named Anastasia Steele (a too-good-for-this-shit Dakota Johnson) has just dumped her BDSM-loving beau after an unsettling session in his “Red Room of Pain,” where Christian keeps his whips and chains. Ana learns that the tortured hunk—who really is the nadir in cinema’s grand tradition of mumble-mouthed hotties—gets off on her pain. She doesn’t like that and bails, the only time in the series in which Ana acts sensibly.
If you’re the kind of person who protested the previous film because of its “problematic” content—portraying people who like S&M as abuse victims with mommy issues—you won’t find more to like in the sequel. After Ana dumps Christian, he follows her to an art gallery where her friend and fellow creepy admirer, José (Victor Rasuk), is having an photography exhibition. She quickly notices that all of his work is about her, which comes as a surprise. After Ana confronts him, José explains that if he had asked her permission to display the portraits, she would have said no. As if violating her stated wishes once weren’t enough, Christian—whom Ana has recently informed to stay away from her—shows up and buys all the portraits. He says he doesn’t like when men gawk at his girl.
If the original was about Ana coming to terms with a side of her boyfriend that scares her, Darker is supposed to be the entry in the series where she takes control, setting her own boundaries. But those limits are continually ignored throughout the film, a borderline abusive stubbornness that the filmmakers seem to believe is romantic. When Ana turns down a check for $24,000—tearing it up—Christian calls yet another docile female assistant and has her wire the money.
Screenwriters don’t often share the views of their protagonists, and you might reasonably believe that Niall Leonard, who just so happens to be James’ husband, isn’t endorsing Christian’s behavior. But the film goes out of its way to validate its hero’s control issues by continually proving him right. After Christian orders Ana not to go to New York with her comely boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), on a work trip, Ana initially resists. What right does he have to tell her what to do? But when Ana later goes to tell her superior she can’t go, Jack traps her in his office and attempts to rape her. Christian swoops in just in time to save the day. A more appropriate title for the film would have been Stalker Knows Best.
Darker has just about enough narrative to fill out one side of a napkin—if the writing were double-spaced—which makes sense given that so much of the source material is devoted to man’s baser desires. But the R-rated film, for being so dramatically thin, is extraordinarily chaste. The filmmakers grant the audience generous access to Johnson’s bare breasts but little else. During Darker’s most torrid scenes, Dornan keeps his clothes on—as if every woman’s most tawdry desire were to be rogered by a man wearing Diesel jeans. Cinematographer John Schwartzman, who worked on Armageddon, learned the wrong lessons from working with Michael Bay, employing frantic, rapid cuts when he should luxuriate over the actor’s bodies. It feels like all the good hanky-panky got left on the cutting room floor.
For the fact that Darker was sold as an erotic thriller, though, the Fifty Shades movies aren’t really about sex at all. They’re about money. Although nothing happens in the film, it happens expensively. Like a strange Dr. Seuss book, Ana and Christian discuss the sex they would like to have—hers mild, his wild—in his million-dollar penthouse and then in his Lamborghini. When her car is trashed by a jealous ex, it’s understood that the billionaire stud will buy her another. Darker suggests that when your scary boyfriend is rich, handsome, and white, his flaws are forgivable. There’s no boundary issue a trip to Tiffany’s can’t fix.
If Darker is like a porno that’s all plot—and a dull and offensive one at that—there’s one scene that rises above the mediocrity. One of the worst aspects of the Fifty Shades movies is that no one appears to be having much fun; the line readings are joyless, the sex serviceable, and the director clearly biding his time until better things come along. But a game Kim Basinger briefly turns up as Elena Lincoln, the woman who made Christian “the way he is.” For reasons that are unexplained, Christian and Elena are now business partners, which is somehow less egregious than the fact that the character is named after a semi-luxury automobile. For a series as turned on by wealth as Fifty Shades, that sort of thing is not a bug but a feature.
Basinger, who starred in the comparatively Bergmanesque 9 ½ Weeks, is the only person who appears to know what movie she’s in. After Ana and Christian (gasp!) announce their whirlwind engagement, Elena confronts her former lover and says that his bride-to-be will never be enough for him. Ana throws a drink in Elena’s face, and a fellow Oscar winner, Marcia Gay Harden, turns up long enough to have her Dynasty moment, slapping the middle-aged femme fatale. (Harden technically plays Christian’s mother and Elena’s longtime friend, but details don’t really matter in Fifty Shades.) Having been humiliated, Elena delicately drops her white handkerchief to the ground—apropos of nothing. Tacky and glorious, the moment like is straight out of a Spanish telenovela, and there should have been more like it.
Hey, maybe you’re the kind of person who likes movies that lack intrigue, sensuality, wit, and even the faintest hint of chemistry between their perfectly airbrushed stars. After all a great many people bought tickets to the last film, which managed to be even longer than this one. But for everyone else, this critic heartily recommends you stay home with Xtube and a bottle of KY. At least people take their pants off on the internet.