I did not read the Fifty Shades trilogy, and I never will. I didn’t see Fifty Shades of Grey in theaters. In fact, I didn’t see it until it had been out for around a year. I queued it up on HBO one bored night, and discovered that it’s an instant cult classic. It is in the same family as Basic Instinct for exploring the outer edges of sexuality in a mainstream movie, Road House for self-aware cheesiness, and Clueless for having a lead character whose comedic turn makes the rest of the script bearable. All my belated enjoyment of the silliness of the first Fifty Shades movie propelled me to a theater (nearly 100% full of women) to see Fifty Shades Darker on its opening night. The director of Darker, James Foley (Fear, House of Cards), and screenwriter, Niall Leonard, don’t quite land the same tone as the first film. They do, however, take it to the outer limits that made films like Black Swan and Showgirls enjoyable; meaning it’s more enjoyable if you don’t take it all so seriously. The success of this series, much like the success of the Twilight series that inspired it, hinges on the idea of the primarily female audience identifying with the female lead — who is a mousy take on the every woman — and wanting the kind of love affair she shares with the male lead. To that end, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) delivers some unsophisticated, fumbling moments of likability: When Christian (Jamie Dorian) lets her sail his yacht, and she exclaims with glee, “I’m the captain!”; when he introduces her to ben wa balls, and she says, “You can’t stick those in my butt,”; and her designation of his interests as “kinky fuckery,” the likes of which Jane Austen would never approve.
This film shows what a middle-aged white man thinks women want sex to look like: A lot of oral for her, a lot of missionary position, and no emotional examination of the relationship whatsoever.
Then there’s the cheesy, rote sex. Apparently, the lack of sex in the first film was a huge point of disagreement between producer and author of the books E.L. James, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, and screenplay writer Kelly Marcel. So those two women were replaced with two men, hand selected by James, to execute a raunchier shade of grey this time around. The problem is that it gives us a movie that’s obsessed with the male gaze where sex is concerned. While I certainly appreciate that one moment of female gaze on Christian’s body, I don’t know why it took place in a gym and not a bedroom. I couldn’t possibly tell you why Foley is so obsessed with training the camera on Ana’s breasts, or why he thinks the audience wants to see them so often. I can tell you that I find it amusing to think that this film shows what a middle-aged white man thinks women want sex to look like: A lot of oral for her, a lot of missionary position, and no emotional examination of the relationship whatsoever. If you’re going to embrace Darker for what it is, that means creating your preferred narrative for the film. I don’t feel the need to accept the premise as-is; I’m not rooting for a happy ending for Ana and Christian. He’s an emotionally withholding sadist who admittedly is interested in Ana because she looks like his mother who died when he was a child. He does not go to therapy to resolve any of these issues, despite identifying them and being repeatedly told by the woman he loves that he has a problem. She smiles with bemusement as he tells her how to behave and declines to tell her the most basic facts about his past. With all of that in mind, I don’t watch this as some great love story unfolding. I look at it as the exploits of two ill-matched people whose relationship is likely to implode at any time. Watching people make bad decisions is a lot more entertaining to me than watching two star-crossed lovers wait for the universe together and, in some ways, it is a bit more relatable. Call me cynical, but I think the trick to enjoying Fifty Shades is not to root for or identify with these people. Rather, it is to see them as one-dimensional characters (and one dimension is truly all we get in Darker) who are making choices that are way, way more impulsive and fucked up than anything you’ve ever done with your love life. Enjoy the ride.