The erotic sequel starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, FIFTY SHADES DARKER is an improvement but still only half a film.
In the saucy on-screen world of author E.L. James, things are leveling out.
In both this movie, and its film franchise on the whole, a balance is suddenly being enforced. Whereas the initial entry, Fifty Shades of Grey, told a story of mousy virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) saying no to everything, Fifty Shades Darker finds her more experienced, minxy and saying yes, yes, yes. Granted, clear motivation may be the missing factor in this shift, but this female-centric materialist rescue fantasy couldn't thrust forward if she didn't.
In that vein, her rich and formerly controlling love interest, billionaire Christian Grey, is realized much better (read, not embarrassingly, like last time) by Jamie Dornan. He's buff and looking better, although Johnson, who was the brightest saving grace of the first film, appears tired here. (And this is only part two of three parts, both sequels having been filmed back to back - look out!) Again, balance.
Darker, if it's possible, is more of a transparent wish-fulfillment machine than its predecessor. Narratively speaking, it's an abomination. This is the rare case of a film that, beginning to end, exists only to keep giving things to its protagonist.
But what lacks in proper drive it makes up for in flat-out opulence. A masquerade ball, lavish houses, parties, bedrooms, vehicles... all designed and photographed to the sexy nines. No expense is spared in generating this escapism, making this, both aesthetically and internally, a sort of a James Bond movie for bored housewives. Consequence-free high living and lovemaking without the burden of a secret mission rule the day (and night).
The red room, with its kinky doohickies and whatnot (again, mostly going unused), is as dangerous, as scandalous!, as it gets. The directorial shift from female (Sam Taylor-Johnson helmed Fifty Shades of Grey) to male (James Foley, of Glengarry Glen Ross fame) seems to have made no difference in that regard.
One gets the impression that Foley, along with Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, are all smarter than this material, if not above it. Nevertheless, the film’s larger present questions about male/female relationship control aren't so much asked as danced around. Consistent with Grey, there's never a moment in Darker when Ana isn't truly in charge.
Dornan is a dreamboat dominant who relinquishes control like never before at every turn, so special is this particular everywoman. His tender sadist is putty in her hands, something she's aware of as she accepts all his attention while nobly declining whatever material gifts of his that she can. (Okay, keep the MacBook and new iPhone. And the flowers. But reject the check for $24,000. Waitaminute, how concerned should she be that he has her banking information?? Ah well, she gets over it by the next scene.)
Many things are certain in this sequel, but none moreso than this: If there were a reverse Bechdel test, Darker would fail miserably. Never once is there a scene where two named male characters, or any character for that matter, discuss anything other than Anastasia. The movie loves to watch Grey, leaning in doorways in perfect light, with his shirt off, lovingly watch her doing whatever she's doing.
In one such token moment, she goes snooping in his notorious S&M "red room," him finding her curiously wondering what nipple clamps are. (His non-explicit exclamation nonetheless derived the film's biggest audible rise in the target audience at this screening.) For a franchise so encumbered with criticism for its supposed embrace of abuse, it's weird to watch the Ana/Christian relationship become weirdly healthier as they effortlessly reach a mutual point of consent, particularly in the bedroom.
A fellow critic whom I trust in such matters informed me that there are six and a half sex scenes, and one post-coital scene. Like the first film, all of the nudity is female and never "full frontal". Muscle-bound Dornan, however, in showing off his vertical balancing strength and skills on his pummel-horse, impressively elevates his body upright, momentarily becoming a human erection. (Yet more balance...?) Now it's Ana's turn to stand in a doorway gawking.
With the lead characters now blissfully reconnected and spending the film going at it like minks in softcore heat, conflict is at a dull minimum as the story's only tensions are of the purely concocted variety: Someone goes missing, an angry ex-lover shows up, Ana's hot guy boss's (Eric Johnson, looking all Gosling) advances, et cetra.
Most of it is resolved sooner than later, as Christian and Ana need to get busy gettin' busy. The intended biggest threats in the story are vague and underplayed, particularly Kim Basinger's brief inclusion as Christian's past "Mrs. Robinson," the older woman who once upon a time messed him up by getting him into "the weird stuff."
On the purely technical level, Fifty Shades Darker is the better movie of the series in nearly every way. The actors are more natural in their roles, the director is more engaged, and it's thankfully shorter. But it still only feels like half a film, a setting of the stage for what's sure to be a tepidly torrid climax.
Gone this time around, at least, is the howlingly bad dialogue ("I'm fifty shades of f#*€%d up!"), and there's only one eye-rollingly bad montage moment, a mini music video that takes a good minute to ogle Grey's awesome sailboat, named after his adoptive mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Don't miss that giant American flag hanging off the back - Oh wait, you can't. This scene hits the bad-movie g-spot. ("G" being for "groan.")
As fascinatingly fun as observing all of this is, my own favorite moment is when Johnson, at her desk at work, gets to full-on quote her mother Melanie Griffith from the end of Working Girl. For just a moment, I was reminded of her interesting Hollywood lineage and a much better movie.
As long as Hollywood's been around, it's been about ultimately affirming traditional values via opulent and/or thrilling and/or racy masquerade. This film is no different. And that much is on the level. Fifty Shades Darker is never tantric, but when viewed through a very certain filter, it's not a grind, either.