On Thursday night, the eight most masochistic members of the Jezebel staff attended the same screening of the endlessly harped-upon film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. All eight of us lived to tell the tale. In fact, to our collective pleasant surprise, it wasn't even really that bad.
Because we were all well-aware of the sort of misery an undertaking like this could bring, we took precautions. Tickets were purchased for a showing at a theater that allows patrons to reserve seats, and thus nobody on staff had to stand outside in a line full of horny moms and smarmy hatewatchers in the freezing cold. Rather than collaborate on a single review, we split responsibilities, each focusing on one crucial aspect of the film. This prevented any single one of us from becoming overwhelmed by the source material's unique blend of sexual cheesiness and nuclear stupidity. Third, we drank. Probably not as much as we should have, but we did our best. And here's what we experienced.
Unlike on their press tour, Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan did not come off like they hated each other in the Fifty Shades movie. Rather, they seemed like two cousins (and not the Les Cousins Dangereux types) who were accidentally cast as romantic leads and felt very uncomfortable about it. Johnson, to her credit, gave it her best shot—she held longing eye contact and made the best of Anastasia's horny lip chewing like a total pro, but the chemistry simply wasn't there. I'm sad to say (because I love him) that the fault lied primarily with Dornan who seemed far too distracted trying to keep up his accent (which he did great work with, assuming Christian Grey is supposed to be mostly Irish and sometimes—puzzlingly—Dutch) to even begin engaging with another person. As such, chemistry was instead demonstrated through a lot of heavy breathing (Johnson) and panicked wide-eyed staring (Dornan).
At one point in the film, Christian tells Ana that he doesn't "make love," he "fucks...hard." It's clearly supposed to be a knee-trembling, clit-tingling moment and yet, from the audience, I felt nothing but a sort of dull sadness (nothing sexier than that). There was no heat behind Dornan's statement nor any of his other actions in the movie (whether it be kissing or fucking or spanking). The only way that Fifty Shades of Grey can even begin to work is by displaying that Christian and Ana have a real and unstoppable animal attraction, otherwise—thanks to E.L. James' shitty characters and storytelling—they make absolutely zero sense as a couple. The success of this movie rested almost entirely on the shoulders of the actors and their ability to desire each other. Unfortunately (despite Johnson's best efforts), they were not up to the task.
Fifty Shades is mostly intended to be a fuckfest between two polar opposite lovers and yet it's still surprising how low-use the side characters are in the movie. They seem to mostly exist so that it wouldn't play out as just a weird series of moments between Anastasia and Christian, whose intensity together suppresses any deep bond they might develop with friends or potential love interests, including Ana's very interested friend José. Rita Ora appears for about 15 seconds, doing nothing, and others, like Christian's surfer bro model brother and his hot driver, aren't given much action.
What the other characters do produce is a strange, almost horror-movie-like sense of calm around the couple. Things that would normally cause outrage are instead accepted, like when Christian creeps up on Ana while she's visiting (and drinking Cosmos with) her mom in Georgia. The most prominent person in this weird support system is Anastasia's roommate Kate, but even their dynamic is only semi-fleshed out and it's halted once Ana starts being secretive about her relationship with Christian.
Okay, so, the script! It's bad, obviously. Not quite as horrific as the book itself, because they clearly pared the dialogue down to an absolute bare minimum. This movie is mostly Beyoncé noises and meaningful looks. I tried to take notes, but it was very dark and I was kind of drunk and therefore this is what my notebook looks like:
So I guess we'll start there. What kind of RAGING IDIOT asks: "What are butt plugs?" Luckily for everyone in the theater, Hillary Crosley Coker shouted, "They're plugs for your butt, dumbass!" Anastasia Steele (I will never be okay with that name) says some other stuff that made me laugh and then check the time on my phone, such as: "Am I a romantic? Well, I study English Lit"; she also, at one point, listens to Christian play the piano for .2 seconds and then squints at him, "That sounds so sad."
To be fair to Jamie Dornan, who was very, very bad in this movie, his lines sounded like they were written by an aging sex robot and/or my 7th grade improv class. His wooden delivery did not help. "There are some people who say I don't have a heart at all," he intones. "Men must throw themselves at you," he lies. "I would like to fuck you into the middle of next week," he shudders, exhausted.
And, of course, the all-too-famous "I would like to bite that lip." I guess my conclusion is that everything Jamie Dornan said in this movie made me never want to have sex again.
In a movie based on such an emotional international phenomenon—remember #notmychristian?—Dakota Johnson did a great job of making her ridiculously named character, Anastasia Steele, likable and believable. From her first fall into Christian Grey's immaculate office for their interview to her drunk dialing him outside of a bar toilet, yammering about his 'Come to me! Nooooo, go away! Wait, come back!' teasing, she mastered the playfulness a 21-year-old soon-to-be submissive would probably have. Most importantly, Johnson mastered the art of being relatable. Through her, I could see myself laughing at some dude who wanted to lay me across his knee and spank me for misbehaving.'
Later when Christian puts her in weird predicaments, like crashing drinks with her deadbeat mom at a Savannah, Georgia hotel unannounced, Johnson is visibly weirded out by his visit. Other parts where she seemed silly and unrealistic, I blame the Fifty Shades book and script. For example, when she's prodding Christian to tell her why he can only get off by controlling and "pleasuring her" with whips and belts, then demands that he "show her" the worst of BDSM, it was the most nonsensical scene in the film. Hearing Christian's story in a conversation would've answered her question, six hard lashes from a leather belt delivered to her naked bottom wasn't really what she was looking for. But again, that's the script's fault and Dakota was just doing the best she could with what she was given.
Jamie Dornan, who played another sexy but twisted character on the British drama The Fall, is handsome in that squirrel-ish self-deprecating way that Hugh Grant made famous. However, in Fifty Shades of Grey a lot of his smoldering looks and bossy behavior with Anastasia just came off awkward. Some of it was supposed to, for example when he tries his hand at his brother's lingo and tells Anastasia 'Laters baby,' it's comical because Grey isn't that guy. But later when he tells Anastasia "I want to fuck you into next week," it wasn't that I didn't believe him but I did wonder 'But would I want this guy to do that to me? I dunno … ' which is not what I should be thinking in a chick lit film marketed to horny ladies, right?
Let's talk about his accent, which was supposed to represent a Northwest orphan raised by wealthy Americans since he was four years old, but his delivery sounded like a Scottish robot trying to sound like an American. His cadence was flat and offbeat, his sounds were all over the place, obviously trying to cover his natural tongue. But like Dakota, some of the lines he was assigned were odd themselves. Instead of saying "Come with me," Christian said "Come" which doesn't sound like an American's sentence structure, does it? Now, picture that jarring instruction delivered in a dull tone and you have Dornan's depiction of Grey.
On the other hand, the initial sex scenes were hot. Dornan should wear his distressed red room jeans more often because he and Dakota's chemistry in the first few scenes were good, especially the second tryst at her apartment when her flipped he like a drumstick on a spit. That was good, more of that please in the inevitable 50-11 future installments of this cinematic series.
A movie based on one of the worst books in the history of the English language ought to change a hell of a lot if it wants any hope of being a movie that doesn't top next year's Razzie Award list. If the film's directors and editors and producers hadn't omitted certain scenes, the film would play like a hypersexual Glitter meets Showgirls meets tampon-flinging. Which, as a habitual hatewatcher and hatereader, is kind of a shame.
Anastasia's inner monologue and "inner goddess" are both absent from the film. Gone from the film is the infamous scene where Christian orders Anastasia to spread her legs and removes her tampon before flinging it into a toilet before fucking her in a bathroom (to experience that scene in all its glory, you'll either have to read the book or watch this creepy fan-made animation). Gone is the scene when Anastasia delivers her first blowjob, while Christian uses her pigtails as handlebars. Gone are all of the blow jobs and penis-touching in general; Jamie Dornan's Christian Grey is apparently able to achieve a rock-hard erection simply through the power of the brain that sits behind his unsettlingly enormous eyeballs.
Filmmakers undoubtedly understood, when trying to build a cinematic silk purse out of the most bovine of sow's ears, that filmgoers would not accept a Christian Grey that was as abusive and shitty as the Christian in the book. They pared back details from Christian's "sub contract" that dictates Anastasia must work out five times a week and maintain her physical fitness. His neuroticism around forcing Anastasia to eat is tempered, and he never refers to his mother as a "crack whore" (or "the crack whore") as he does with increasing frequency in the book; instead, she's a "prostitute who was addicted to crack." Even the physical violence between the two is minimized; in the film, Christian ferociously whips Anna six times in the penultimate scene; in the book, he subjects her to eleven lashes.
But every change the film makes to the original text isn't deleterious. Dakota Johnson has somehow turned Anastasia Steele, one of the most boring, childish, and unlikable characters I've ever read, into something endearing, sweet, and cute. Book Anastasia is humorless; movie Anastasia is cheeky and, in moments kind of funny. Perhaps the most noteworthy difference between the book and the film: the book is historically terrible; the film isn't.
I'll cop to it: I was pleasantly surprised by the first two sex scenes in Fifty Shades. Sure, I couldn't stop comparing everything to Outlander, and in the first scene (referred to henceforth as the "deflowering," shudder), I couldn't help but visually insert Charlie Hunnam's butt. But the second scene, if you could suspend your feelings of "well, here I am in a room full of women in recliners watching the dude from The Fall sex up Melanie Griffith's daughter to the sound of Beyonce's 'Haunted,'" was legitimately hot. Maybe sex just looks really great in late-afternoon lighting. Give credit where it's due: Dornan and Johnson are the first people who've ever managed to make me the slightest bit interested in the cliche old ice-cube-on-the-nipple trick.
Unfortunately, the kinkier the sex got, the cheesier the scenes got. By the time Christian was flogging Ana to some all-too-orchestral song, I was rolling my eyes so hard I'm lucky I didn't hurt myself. (Also, his bed in the Red Room was tacky.) Which is especially annoying, because Johnson did a much better job than expected convincing me that Ana was truly interested in the sex itself. The movie, miracle of miracles, managed to persuade me that she definitely wanted to fuck Christian Grey and she was even intrigued by the kinky stuff, but it was Christian's legalistic approach and basketful of issues that sent her running. Too bad they chickened out and got all soft-focus at the finish line.
The Jezebel staff was disappointingly sober during our Fifty Shades viewing. There was a lot of hype about the alcohol that was going to be consumed before the film, but as the only one sober against her will (I am currently on antibiotics for an unidentified respiratory illness and it is ruining my life), I found the whole thing unimpressive. Erin hyped drinking on the train on the way to meet us at the bar before the movie, but there was no sign she'd done so when we got to the bizarre Upper West Side Irish sports bar. At said bar, she downed two beers, but I've seen Erin drunk – it takes more than that to push a midwesterner into slurring territory. Hillary, well, she committed, bringing a flask she'd borrowed from her husband, but we all know one flask shared among a gaggle of women won't do much. Ellie's small enough that I'd believe the one drink she had might have been enough, and I did my part to get her there, eating the majority of her truffle fries, but it appeared to be in vain. Right before we had to leave to go sit in our VERY comfortable reclining seats, Meredith of io9 ordered a second Chardonnay; when I told her she'd have to pound it she responded, "Oh that's not a problem." (Good girl, but note that she does not write for Jezebel.)
The only staff member I can say with certainty was wasted was Madeleine, who accidentally dropped a curry fry into her beverage, blushed as she removed it, and then announced, "You know I'm going to drink it anyway."
Our level of sobriety, however, didn't seem to matter: the group was as vocal as ever during the movie, laughing at inappropriate times and making loud comments. We fit in nicely, however, as the rest of the audience seemed to share our verve, if not our sentiment about the film. Maybe they'd all pregamed better than us. Probably.
The audience is about 98 percent female, and mostly in their early 20s. There are more Uggs than I'm used to seeing in New York, and, here and there, pairs of teeteringly high, seasonally inappropriate heels. Everyone looks a little abashed at first: this is a film best watched in sweats at home on the couch, but here we are, dragged in public like trenchcoated patrons at a porn palace. As the film begins, though, there's a silken ripple of excited giggling. The whole thing feels very much like a sleepover.
A raunchy sleepover, that is. These are New York women: each sex scene is met with gasps, applause, appreciative snorts. Every joke, no matter how limp, goes over big. When we see a half-second shot of Christian's pubes and the base of his dick, a woman behind me lets out a stifled half-gasp, half-moan, quarter-giggle. The same woman growls "yesssssss" at several relevant moments. She is not alone. This crowd is rowdy. This crowd means it.
There are lots of swoony sighs too: when Christian takes a lusty bite of Anastasia's toast and says, "I'm incapable of leaving you alone," the whole room audibly loses it. At times, the most scandalized people in the room are the Jezebel staff, albeit not at any of the sex. Erin Ryan shakes her head in disgust when Ana and Christian fuck with the door open at her apartment, her Upper Midwestern sense of good manners shocked at such a blatant roommate violation. "Not cool," she mutters. When Christian sells Ana's car without asking her, Madeleine Davies hisses "Rude." As Christian puts her in his helicopter for the first time, buckles her seatbelt like a toddler and smirks "Now you can't escape," half the staff can be heard muttering something like, "Girl, get out of there." Everyone else is watching this thing like a dreamy romantic comedy; we're clutching our seats like a slasher flick.
We're completely alone in that, though. When the final scene goes dark, rather abruptly, anguished, frustrated laughter rings out. "How they gonna do us like that?" a woman cries, from the depth of her heart.