’50 Shades of Grey’ Insultingly Shallow

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LOGOBecause I love to read and because I spent my professional career teaching language and literature and because I like to stay abreast of current fiction, I ordered a sample of E L James’ “50 Shades of Grey” sent to my iPad back in May 2011, when the book was first published. I had both read and heard how the book was a runaway bestseller, and as I made my way through the first few pages, I found myself checking and rechecking the title. Surely Amazon had sent me the wrong thing because I thought I was reading the secret diary of a 12-year-old. Unfortunately, however, Amazon had not erred, and after forcing myself to read several more pages just to make certain it wouldn’t get any better, I gleefully pressed the “Delete Permanently” button and rid myself of “50 Shades of Grey” for what I thought would be forever. But I was wrong!

Now this deplorable tome masquerading as reputable fiction has found its way to the silver screen, and people are turning out in droves to see it. In fact, the incredible $85.2 million it raked in during its three-day opening weekend made it the all-time champ for a February opening, and at this writing its total box office haul was a whopping $130.1 million. Now before we discuss this film, please keep in mind that reviews are completely subjective, and you are reading my opinion. And I respect the fact that everyone is entitled to an individual opinion. That being said, let’s have at it!

In “50 Shades of Grey” we meet Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson), a senior at a college near Vancouver, whose roommate, Katherine “Kate” Kavanagh (Eloise Mumford), is the editor of the school newspaper at the same college. On the day Kate has scheduled an interview with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a 27-year-old billionaire, at his corporate headquarters in Seattle, she becomes ill and asks Ana to conduct the interview for her.

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Despite her innate diffidence and naïveté Ana travels to Grey’s spacious office complex and manages to conduct a respectable interview. When she has finished asking her questions, however, Ana notices that Grey seems to have more than a passing interest in her, and the following dialogue ensues between the two of them.

Grey: “What about you? I’d like to know more about you.”

Ana: “There’s really not much to know about me. Just look at me.”

Grey: “I am.”

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This scintillating repartee clearly illustrates that the film’s script has achieved the same intellectual level as the novel that spawned it. Of course when Grey says he is looking at her, Ana blushes and becomes all unglued, and thus begins the strange relationship at the heart of this story.

I’ll spare you the boring details of how Grey pursues the virginal Ana and ultimately lures her into his world, where he treats women as sexual pawns and where he subjects them to various forms of bondage and sadomasochistic practices. By his own admission Grey is a control freak, and women who enter into a relationship with him must sign a contract delineating to what they will and will not consent, and one of the most ridiculous scenes in the film shows Ana and Grey negotiating her contract.

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Now if you are thinking that Grey is a complete wacko, you are absolutely right, and one of the things I really despised about this film is the way it disrespects women by portraying them as submissive doormats for guys who get their kicks by completely dominating them. At one point Ana asks Grey to what he attributes his success, and he replies, “I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele.” Thus, it should come as no surprise that the film is devoted to Grey’s sexual domination of Ana.

Time out for a Kodak moment from the film as Grey looks at Ana and says, “I’d like to bite that lip.”

And Ana replies profoundly, “I think I’d like that too.”

Take a cold shower and read on.

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So why are moviegoers flocking to see a poorly acted movie in which a man ties up a woman to have sex with her or spanks her or whips her with his belt? The only answer I can think of is that people want to see sex on the big screen, and there is plenty of it in this film, but I disagree with those who classify the movie as pornography. Although bare breasts and buttocks abound in the film, there is no full-frontal nudity, nor are the sex scenes so explicit that nothing is left to the imagination, but they did become repetitiously tedious. And if you are expecting any kind of a plot line, forget it!

Because both Johnson and Dornan played their respective parts with all the enthusiasm of two somnambulists, they fail to create characters about whom we care. In fact, I loathed Ana for being so willing to let Grey manipulate her, and I found Grey inhumanely repulsive for his treatment of Ana. In the film’s production notes, Johnson and Dornan offered some insight into their characters.

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About Ana, Johnson said, “Her reaction, when Christian reveals the type of relationship he’s interested in pursuing, is something that’s surprising. Normally, you’d think that a girl who has never been exposed to any of that sort of relationship would run away, thinking that he’s the most messed-up person she’s ever met. But, Ana doesn’t. Instead, her reaction is to try and understand it. The danger of it, and I think this is exciting, is that the story has all of the components of a thriller; you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is she going to be OK with this difficult thing to grasp? Will she be able to reconcile herself to it for Christian? Will she be able to change that much and love him despite this? Will he be able to do the same for her?”

“From the outside,” Dornan said, “Christian is very intriguing and powerful, an impressive man with numerous businesses. They’ re all under one grand enterprise, but that incorporates all kinds of different telecommunications and farming technology companies. There are many different facets to his empire, and he’s incredibly young to be in this position. He’s all about power and money, and he has plenty of both. But as we delve deeper, we realize that there’s a lot more to him than that. As an actor, you are looking for parts that will be challenging and different. I’ve never played anyone like Christian before. He’s a very intriguing character with a lot of layers, a lot of depth, and that’s what you want: to portray him in a truthful way on screen.”

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Despite what the two stars say, I found nothing at all appealing about “50 Shades of Grey,” but there’s obviously a huge market for this kind of shallow rubbish. Well, so be it! In case you didn’t know it, the book upon which the film was based is the first of a trilogy, and that means two more movies dealing with the continuing saga of Ana and Christian are on the horizon. It should come as no surprise that I’ll pass on those. One was more than enough.

Now let’s move to the bottom line. Sex sells, and so this film will continue to do well at the box office. But it has nothing to recommend it, and I would rather endure a root canal sans Novocain (Or should I have said I’d rather be tied up and spanked?) than sit through it again.

Now you may expect “50 Shades of Grey” to earn the final score of zero, but instead it gets a reluctant three. Because Dakota Johnson is the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, that counts for two points. And point three is awarded because Tippi Hedren (“The Birds” and “Marnie”) is Dakota’s grandmother. I could never give a zero to a film featuring someone related to the star of two Alfred Hitchcock classics.

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