REVIEW: Fifty Shades of Vanilla

"My safe word is banana."
“My safe word is banana.”

There isn’t a good explanation why fan-fiction-turned-best-seller “Fifty Shades of Grey” became so successful. It was built following the “Twilight” blueprint, hardly anybody’s idea of a great book. It wasn’t even well written: “oh, my” was often the way to describe whatever was going on plot-wise.

Unlike “Twilight”, the overarching topic wasn’t vampirism, but BDSM, specifically domination. Yet the approach wasn’t from someone who embraced it (like Anne Rice in her “Sleeping Beauty” series), but a tourist who would give it a shot, but judge the practitioners all the same.

In spite of all its shortcomings, the book struck a chord: It felt transgressive in the mildest way possible, palatable for moms looking for socially acceptable thrills. But the literary value of the novel was close to zero.

It’s a testament to the prowess of director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), lead actors Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan (The Fall), and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers) that Fifty Shades of Grey the movie is able to stands on its own (at least the first half).

Taylor-Johnson dismisses the silliest elements of the book (goodbye Inner Goddess, see you never “holy cow”), and mines the goofy parts for laughs: The double entendre-rich early conversations become comedic foreshadowing. But eventually not even the best intentions can rescue the movie from the inanity of the central relationship.

Anastassia Steele (Dakota Johnson) doesn’t quite have the panache her name suggest. In fact, she is a mousy literature student, the kind who is gorgeous beyond belief, but nobody notices because her hair is in a ponytail. For reasons too convoluted to matter, she is tasked to interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a billionaire who barely works in who knows what, but has no time for romance.

The obvious attraction leads first to a non-disclosure contract (as you do) for missionary sex, and later to a more elaborate document involving Grey’s peculiar preferences. See, Christian is a dominant and he wants to make Ana his submissive, but the girl has some issues with the idea. She wants a degree of independence regardless of her feelings for Grey (this is the biggest departure from Twilight, as the passive and compliant Bella is the worst role model a teenage girl could possibly have).

The main conflict in Fifty Shades of Grey takes place inside Ana’s mind, which isn’t particularly cinematic. She wants to change him, but he is an immovable object. The only options left are to let go or reassert herself. Fascinating, it’s not.

All that’s left is the SM-flavoured hanky-panky and there is nothing ground breaking about it. Sharon Stone did the same fifteen years ago in Basic Instinct and it was way hotter. The entire process is treated with reverence and zero passion. While Dornan and particularly Johnson are competent, their level of chemistry is debatable. Characters with no discernible purpose come and go. One has to feel for Max Martini (Pacific Rim) and prairie boy Callum Keith Rennie, stuck in the most thankless roles imaginable.

Fifty Shades of Grey has a complicated relationship with BSDM practices. Sure, it plays like Introduction to Sadomasochism, but also states that Christian is sick, ergo condemning the nature of his relationship with Anastassia. In Grey’s backstory, the woman who introduced him to the world of handcuffs and whips is depicted as a sexual predator. The story couldn’t be more hypocritical, but then again, it plays to the target audience’s expectations: It’s sexy, but it’s wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

For a much, much better movie on dominance and submission, check out Nymphomaniac Part II. If you want to bore yourself to death with the subject be on the lookout for The Duke of Burgundy. According to Burgundy, being the dominant is a lot of work, but you can get the submissive to clean your house.

On the strength of the first half, two and a half prairie dogs in leather outfits. It’s a disturbing image.

Fifty Shades of Grey opens tomorrow everywhere. Everywhere.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.

7 thoughts on “REVIEW: Fifty Shades of Vanilla”

  1. I thought about it Barb, but the BDSM practices are incidental to the plot and the Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando characters don’t seem to be enjoying themselves at all. A missing component in most movies dealing with dominance is that both parts get something of it.

  2. I read all 3 books. I guess I wanted to see what all the hype was about. I found it more of a love story than anything else. Will I see the movie? No. Would I recommend these books to anyone? No.

  3. Last tango in Paris, Bitter moon, Secretary and ofcourse nymphomaniac are better choices than 50 shades…

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