50 Shades of GAHH

Following on theologian Fay Voshell’s helpful and erudite review of the political trappings and concomitant events that gave rise to the BDSM predilection in its originator, the Marquis de Sade, the film itself fails on the level of eroticism it tried to evoke. Sadly, too, it fails on the level of basic entertainment. One reviewer, Robert Levine, commented that “50 Shades” is as “stimulating as a cold shower.”

One sign that we have come a distracting distance from eroticism and pleasure is the fact that today, writing “BDSM” in a review for a general audience, one needn’t even specify what the acronym represents. Anyone past adolescence, anyone with a computer or tablet, knows what it stands for. And having said that, the one-time whispered sordidness, perhaps, has lost its power to thrill or generate much in the way of shivery pleasure.

We all knew, and probably avoided reading, the bodice ripper fan-fiction by E.L. James. No man admits to having read the book, and the few females who have, and who live in the cultural matrix of educated book consumers, all admit they could not plow through the turgid prose after a few pages. The film was an attempt to capitalize on those millions of women somewhere in flyover country who did read the book, and presumably liked it enough to then rummage through sex-toy and –device emporia to buy the whips or paddles or whatever impedimenta the plutocrat sadist in the novel employed to subdue his innocent captive. Sales of “dungeon” stuff -- updated and prettified from those used in real dungeons in Zanzibar and other fetid stops along the African slave-trade route operated by Muslims 200 years ago -- have reportedly enjoyed an upsurge since the book’s popularity took off.

Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, is pretty enough, and reminds one somehow of the early, dewy Anne Hathaway at the start of “The Devil Wore Prada.” The female lead in “50 Shades,” however, never actually decides, though she accommodates her non-explicit dominator, played by scowling, handsome, well-built Jamie Dornan -- who would make a great Superman in any forthcoming installment of that franchise. His megabiz is never quite explicit, though wouldn’t we care to learn how he made his billions? He certainly never smiles throughout the film.

We see that he has a bevy of willing and beautiful potential victims, were he to look around his shiny office. The audience is never told why this sweet but unexceptional female, accidentally there to interview him instead of her roommate, a real reporter, is chosen for his erotic/abusive escapade experiments. His apparently unpleasant origins are vaguely but unsatisfyingly hinted at, but not enough to give the audience anything much to explain why he insists on absolute submission, or why he can’t seem to function without using his high school notion of “torture,” his ridiculous “playroom” full of restraints, chains, flagellation leathers and suchlike.

True, the first 15 or 20 minutes, when Christian Grey is seducing Anastasia Steele (could you find a more artificial construct, one combining the last daughter of the last tsar with the Anglicized last name of the cruelest Communist, Stalin?) into signing his contract as a submissive, has its sensuous and appealing moments. The choice of male moniker, Christian, an  ironic take on is un-Catholic sexual proclivities, modified to a tolerable, “grey” level, perhaps?

Once Anna is beguiled by gifts and dazzle to submit to his determined advances, however, not his “love-making” nor his applications of infliction of “pain” nor his expensive and puerile sex chamber toys offer much in the way of diversion. We’ve all seen better, and we’ve all experienced more in the way of satisfying and reciprocal embraces or approaches. In the end, the not-quite-submissive rejects the whole notion. In the end, most adults. . . yawn.

There is little to the story beyond the hanging question of whether this assertive young woman will in the end sign up for dotted-line-always-say-Yes. There is little in the way of character development, of course. The cinematography, however luscious in various outdoor venues -- one particular scene evocative of Claude Monet’s “Bain a la Grenouillere” (1869), another of glossy surfaces so refractive one cannot actually figure out where or how the characters actually walk without cutting themselves on edges or metal or glass borders -- is wasted. Though initial box office is in the very respectable mid-high nine figures, predictions are that this bauble of bang-up bedding will not resonate very much longer than a pebble in a muddy rill. Maybe word of mouth will guillotine its mushy march.

Audience interest, keen in the early scenes, hyped by the popularity of the novel and the Hollywood magic-machine, wanes even with the discreetly nude forms of the protagonists. Brief appearances by Marcia Gay Harden as the billionaire’s adoptive mother, and the usually lovely Jennifer Ehle, do little to deepen the film for public consumption. Nothing much happens beyond one-wayism. Not. Sexy.

Spoiler alert: Strangest of all, the film ends so abruptly that people actually stormed out, irritated. Pockets of discussants in the lobby afterwards were thick with complaints about how the film failed on the levels it attempted. After a week of mulling over the screening, one is left with nothing at all much to think about. The eroticism seems a cheat. There is no warmth between the leads, and one is left with a vague, empty sensation of disquiet. Our colleague correctly notes that if Dornan/Christian had courted Johnson/Anna from a trailer camp, with a dirt bike instead of a swoop over the countryside in his ultralight, no one would give the film the time of day.

Takeaway: Costing $40 million to film, global box office came in at a dominating #1, $240 million in 55 foreign markets ($90 million of that, Stateside), the continentals must be grumpy with political agita, taking to the silly and ephemeral to alleviate the daily grimness of headline news. Those numbers, alas, probably guarantee a sequel.

The Roman Stoic philosopher and moralist beloved of Nero, Seneca (4 BCE – 65 ACE), wrote the correct view to take in deciding whether to shell out for “50 Shades”: “De Brevitate vitae” -- life is too short to indulge in this clumpy tale for frustrated or celibate shut-ins.