[Screen It]


(2015) (Dakota Johnson, Jamie Doran) (R)

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Drama: A college senior contemplates entering into a BDSM relationship with a handsome and young billionaire, but grows frustrated by his reluctance and inability to open up to her in a traditional sense of such a romantic relationship.
Anastasia Steele (DAKOTA JOHNSON) is a college senior in Portland who's majoring in English lit, works in a hardware store to make ends meet, and isn't looking much further out in her life than getting through finals. But when her fellow college student roommate, Kate (ELOISE MUMFORD), is too sick to interview Seattle-based telecom mogul Christian Grey (JAMIE DORNAN) for the school newspaper, Ana takes her place. She finds the young billionaire attractive, while Grey quickly sets his sights on her, wondering if her photographer friend, José (VICTOR RASUK), is her boyfriend. He isn't, and much to Christian's surprise, Ana reveals -- once they become physically involved -- that she's still a virgin.

He quickly takes care of that -- after his brother Elliot (LUKE GRIMES) has bedded Kate -- and then wonders if she might be interested in a particular behavior he finds quite appealing. And that would be BDSM (bondage and sadomasochism), something that initially surprises her, but then draws her interest as he slowly introduces her to that hidden part of his highly controlled world. While his mother, Grace (MARCIA GAY HARDEN), is happy to see a woman in his life, and her four-time married mother, Carla (JENNIFER EHLE), tries to impart words of wisdom to her about men, Ana must decide whether to sign a highly detailed contract with Christian about starting such a BDSM relationship where she'd be the submissive party to his dominant one.

As their sexual relationship continues to evolve, Ana tries to decide whether to proceed or not, all while being frustrated by his reluctance and/or inability to open up to her emotionally in the traditional sense of a romantic relationship.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
I haven't the faintest notion how many movies have some sort of sexual content in them, but I'm guessing it would be well into the thousands. Of course, that's not that surprising considering that sex is a big part of the human condition and an obvious reason that all of us are around today and that our race will continue, including making movies about or featuring sexual content.

Granted, the vast majority aren't interested in depicting a realistic view of sexuality on the screen, or using such material as a necessary ingredient of furthering the plot or characters. Instead, they often use such content as pure titillation, usually aimed at the male viewer.

That's unlike such content in novels that -- possibly because they utilize the reader's imagination -- are usually more erotic in nature and thus play evenly or maybe even more in favor of the ladies. Despite that, most such passages and the novels in which they appear go unnoticed by the masses.

Every once in a while, though, one particular offering becomes something of a cultural phenomenon and that certainly happened with "Fifty Shades of Grey." Penned by E.L. James (real name Erika Mitchell) and released in 2011, the tale of a wealthy businessman bringing a young ingénue into his world of BDSM (bondage and sadomasochism for those not up on their sexual acronyms) took off like wildfire and reportedly has generated more than 100 million copies sold between it and its sequels.

In full disclosure, I haven't read the novel or its subsequent follow-ups, but I certainly wasn't surprised to hear it was getting the big screen treatment that now arrives just in time for Valentine's Day weekend in a film of the same name.

Not being familiar with the novel's tone or plotline, I pondered what sort of movie was awaiting me as I arrived for our press screening. Would it be hot and steamy but -- due to its R rating -- stop short of being all-out pornography? Or might it go the camp route and be a hoot and guilty pleasure to behold? Then again, there was always the possibility it could play out as a cautionary tale, or maybe a combination of all or some of the above.

What I wasn't expecting was a boring and, dare I say, limp drama that's not remotely arousing, barely intriguing, and makes me dread the notion of not one but two sequels reportedly already in the works. Aside from the BDSM material that doesn't really show its head until fairly well into the film, the story comes off somewhat like a fairly lame version of "Pretty Woman" and a far less interesting look at the world of kinky sex than occurred in "Secretary" (with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader).

Rather than a prostitute experiencing the Cinderella transformation thanks to the attention of a wealthy corporate raider, we have a virginal college senior (Dakota Johnson -- daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) who gets to live the rich life after meeting a wealthy telecom mogul (Jamie Dornan) and becoming his sexual plaything. The catch is that our titular man has a hidden obsession with blindfolds, cuffs, floggers and other things that bring leather and studs to mind. Much like Spader's character in the other film, he wants to be dominant, and just like Gyllenhaal's, our female lead here kind of gets into this behavior after her initial shock and surprise.

That film was erotic, funny and disturbing all wrapped into one as it examined that usually hidden side of sexuality, relationships and the desire to dominate and be dominated. Here, it feels like a gimmick, albeit one that provides for plenty of scenes of Johnson to be fully nude. Such material can only carry a movie so far, and thus screenwriter Kelly Marcel's adaptation of James' work tries to create some drama in terms of whether Ana will or won't accept Christian's lengthy contract about what will and won't be accepted if she agrees to become his submissive partner. To pad that, there's the occasionally touched upon "mystery" of why he "doesn't do the girlfriend thing" and won't open up to her emotionally. I guess those scars on his often seen bare chest have something to do with it, yes?

Despite that, he does try to sweep her off her feet ("Come fly with me in my rented glider," "Here's your new car!"), thus contradicting his otherwise self-stated singular mind and not being the dinner and movie sort of dating guy. I'm guessing that's supposed to be the melting of his heart, but the film's wishy-washy portrayal of him does the film no favors (while viewers such as yours truly will be distracted by Dornan's eyes where the pupil and iris are blended together to such a degree that you wonder if that's real or some sort of visual special effect to make him seem more animalistic, demonic or what have you).

Johnson is okay, but really doesn't have much to work with here (either with her clothes on or off), and is far better earlier in the film playing the awkward ingénue. The rest of the cast members aren't around enough to make any sort of impression, thus leaving director Sam Taylor-Johnson no choice but to give the flick a glossy sheen in hopes of differentiating it from some late night fodder on Skinemax, uh, Cinemax.

If one or more aspects of the BDSM experience are your thing, this film might be right up your alley or parts thereof. For everyone else, it's a bland experience occasionally interrupted by bouts of nudity and related naughty bits. Had it gone the guilty pleasure camp route, served as a shocking, cautionary tale or simply headed full bore into eroticism, it might have fared better. As it stands, "Fifty Shades of Grey" might have you paraphrasing the old Paul Simon song and figure out "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Theater." It rates as no better than a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 11, 2015 / Posted February 13, 2015

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