For Fifty Shades Freed, the final installment of the Fifty Shades franchise, 11 members of the Jezebel staff ceremoniously filed into a 19th Street theater and girded our loins with stealth. As with the last two films in this series of great sensual weight and heft, each staffer was assigned an aspect to critically evaluate and, where warranted, laud without compunction.
These are the results, for the very last time (until the inevitable reboots).
I don’t even know anymore. This is my third time reviewing Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson’s chemistry and performances (because I am the elder crone of Jezebel) and have things changed since their stilted and uncomfortable interactions in the first Fifty Shades of Grey? I’m not so sure. Things seemed to slightly improve with Fifty Shades Darker, Dornan finally getting ahold of his American accent and Johnson allowed to more freely exude her natural charm, but now we have Fifty Shades Freed and both somehow seem much worse—or maybe I’m just tired. These two move with the reluctance of siblings cast as romantic leads in a high school play. Their interactions are entirely without spark, meaning no spark in this reviewer’s nether regions either. In one scene, Christian serenades Ana with Paul McCartney’s “Mayb I’m Amazed” and my secondhand embarrassment coupled with the high from the weed pen I blessedly hit before the movie started led me to actually put my head in my hands. I like both Dornan (look how cute he is here) and Johnson (for many reasons, but largely because she looks so much like our very own Joanna Rothkopf), but I’ve grown to truly despise the characters that they’re playing and thank the Lorde that this is the last one because I really don’t think I could sit through another.
It’s been a minute since I read the books, but watching the movie, I felt the same sense of dread. This is dark, but all the Fifty Shades books are based on Twilight, a tale where if the female character wanders off she might get eaten by a supernatural being. Edward is still possessive and creepy, but there is some internal logic to his intense fear of her independence (I’d still run the fuck away, but whatever). In Fifty Shades, it just completely reads that Christian is a guy whose need for control will escalate to physical abuse. A couple times in the movie, even though I knew this wouldn’t happen, I really thought he was about to hit her!! And it was toned down from the books. From what I remember, the scene where Anna falls asleep topless and flashes her boobs on a boob beach is a much more serious infraction in the novel. She is truly shamed by Christian’s wake up call about having a photo of her tits on a tabloid magazine. In the film, she shrugs it off and they have hot sex. It’s an especially absurd scene because of how much we see of Dakota Johnson’s nipples in this movie (the filmmakers have heard our plea for Jamie Dornan penis and answered with 100 times more nipple action).
Most of the changes from the book to the film are like that—trying to minimize the red flags Christian is waving all over the place. Elena, or “Mrs. Robinson,” is also mostly eliminated from the story. In the film, she shows up in a text to propel Ana into an angry, topless fight with Christian; in the book, she is herself a victim of abuse, beaten by her husband after he discovers her former affair. Her husband, the one who pays Jack Hyde’s bail, doesn’t seem to come up in the movie, and it also skips over the book’s telling of how Elena “helped” Christian by channeling his insane anger at his mother into kinky sex. I think that to show a bruised and battered Elena would have brought the abuse undertones to the surface even more, and they were already hard to ignore, no matter how tight Jamie Dornan’s ass is. This story has not aged well!!
I have always thought that people clutching their pearls over this narrative were worked up over nothing—their sex seems consensual and fun to me, and they actually do communicate pretty well about what they’re comfortable with. But Christian’s anger and insecurity in the film definitely made me much more uncomfortable than it did when I was reading the book. Feeling afraid someone is going to scream at you for going out to drinks is scary and toxic, and there weren’t any adjustments the movie could make to really justify it. Is that a bummer? Sorry. There are way more nipples in the film, so there’s that.
About five minutes into the opening of the movie, I realized that I was deeply unqualified to handle the assignment I’d been given. “Music” of the type that is featured heavily in Fifty Shades Freed is not my specialty. Also, our theater was dark and I’d had a can of chardonnay, a bucket of popcorn, and spilled a healthy amount of Coke Zero down the neck of my sweatshirt by the time the film had commenced. I was in a great place to assess the music that would score the sweet conclusion of this saga of indentured servitude.
Most of the music scoring the sex scenes sounded like the kind that someone who thinks they are very good at sex puts on while having sex for the first time with a new person. “Sacrifice,” a pleasant-enough slow-jam that, in my tipsy haze, sounded very much like a dollar store version of the Weeknd, was fine. Julia Michaels had two songs on this soundtrack and both were also fine. Much of the music made the entire movie look and feel like a car commercial—for some reason, there were many beautiful shots of an Audi winding its way down curvy country roads, etc. My notes, unfortunately, are really no help. “A song for your high school enemy’s wedding video you watch on Facebook,” reads one insight; though I did not write down what song it was, a closer listen to the soundtrack assures me it is this Liam Payne and Rita Ora joint—fun! “Is Christian a changeling?” is entirely unrelated to music but related to the movie’s tenuous sense of plot, so that’s one out of two. Somewhere in the mushy middle of this movie, Jessie J interpolates James Brown. I want to say it was during a sex scene, but that would be too on the nose.
Perhaps the best and most important musical moment in this entire franchise occurred about halfway through. Christian has spirited Ana and her friends away to some giant modernist pile in the mountains near Seattle—his country home, I suppose—after she complained that she never sees her friends because she lives in what is effectively a very fancy prison. As everyone is settling in, Christian takes a seat at the piano and plunks out a plodding, earnest version of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Instead of grabbing all her things and running straight out the front door, Ana gazes upon her nerdy-ass husband with a shy smile, moved and possibly aroused by his talents and knowledge of post-Beatles McCartney’s oeuvre. Later, they have really disgusting dairy-sex. Jamie Dornan can sing and play the piano—who knew?
When director James Foley and cinematographer John Schwartzman were brought on for Fifty Shades Darker, they knew they had a mess to clean up. Foley, with a metaphorical bottle of chardonnay popped, provided for his fans: no lingering on plot points, cinematography so glossy everything looks like it was rubbed down in baby oil (even the buildings), Christian talking less, Anastasia talking more, some friggin’ humor, and for all of the major set pieces to be the SEX. All we had to do was sit back, turn our brains off, and enjoy. So imagine our confusion when Fifty Shades Freed betrayed all those things. We had an agreement, boys!
First off, the initial 30 minutes of this movie is an insufferably boring montage: marriage, we’re rich now, honeymoooon. It feels as if both director and cinematographer were like, “look, this is the shit source material we have to cover so please just bear with us, we’re gonna make it go as quickly as possible—oh look, chantilly lace! Paris!” And considering they know all we want is the boning, the first hint of it is a fucking tracking shot. So we’re already disappointed for how much hurried “plot” this movie will ultimately have. Fortunately, time does start moving linearly once the first real sex scene occurs, which also starts us off with some sultry, closeup hair braiding first. Sigh.
So craft-wise this film maintains its crystalline, sleek aesthetic (keeping Anastasia’s big ol’ sparkler front and center—she’s married now, people!) except for the “spooky” moments—i.e. Anastasia finding a gun, her weirdly dedicated stalker in any scene (like why is everyone so adamant about killing them?)—where Schwartzman reminds us that he went to USC! He shot Seabiscuit! Things get chiaroscuro-ed, some actual aesthetic choices are made. And of course the sex scenes bring the erratic, but ultimately very low stakes, plot to a screeching halt and, analyzing it as I was with a Sprite filled with Wild Turkey (please don’t ask), they very intelligently do a lot to remove the faces of both Johnson and Dornan so you can project your sexually deprived self onto objectively hot bodies where every boob and pec is perfectly backlit, glistening, and featured in a sensually lingering pan. Too bad there is so little of it this time around because Anastasia has the audacity to get pregnant… fine, guess we have to default to the second most interesting thing: hostage situations (?!).
The movie ends three times. First with Anastasia prostrating herself as a sub to Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” (questionable). Then, how it begins with another fucking montage (are you kidding me?!). And then finally, the world’s fastest epilogue of Ana and Christian walking around with babies (sure). All in all I think we can all agree this film needed 95 percent more Boyce Fox—free advice, Mr. Foley.
Before I get to Rita Ora, let’s talk about Boyce Fox, a minor character who left an indelible mark on me—perhaps more than anyone in the entire franchise. I believe my seatmate, Kelly Stout, who laughed for multiple minutes after hearing the name Boyce Fox, would say the same. Boyce Fox is the best-selling author with a five-o’clock shadow whose sole purpose in the movie is to give Anastasia real work to do and validate her unearned promotion to fiction editor—part of her job also involves approving font sizes. Boyce Fox is a name I’ll never forget thanks to Fifty Shades.
Jack, the rapey creep, reprises his supporting role as the villain, back to kidnap Christian’s sister Mia (the lovely Rita Ora) for ransom and the sake of an anticlimactic plot point. Did the story need him? Yes! So that he could ransack Christian’s apartment, Mission Impossible style, and so Ana could say, “Why would Jack do that? It’s insane.” Isn’t it? Jack also gives Christian’s new security detail a reason to be there, although his guard Prescott should probably get fired because he sucked at a major part of his job.
After two installments in which she barely had any dialogue, it’s about time Rita Ora got a chance to shine, and in multiple scenes (after which there will be no more scenes). I found her to be exactly as appealing as she was in the prior movies, no more and no less. But she certainly makes some sort of impression. There’s Mia, shopping with Ana, hiking with Ana, and being kidnapped and gagged, unable to speak any lines of dialogue. Still, Mia has a more critical purpose than Ana’s friend Kate, who provides a subplot about cheating. Enter Gia, the flirty architect of our dreams who at one point tells Christian, “I love what you’re doing in Africa,” referencing something he was doing in Africa. Let’s give it up for Gia.
I may have had too much canned chardonnay this time around, because my notes are nearly illegible and my memory of this film is (thankfully) limited. A line that did immediately stand out to me is when Rita Ora, playing Christian’s curiously-accented sister, tells her brother and his new wife to feel free to “make as much noise as you want” during a group vacation, as though she is happily familiar with their sex life and its many demands. After three consecutive years watching these movies, though, nothing can really make me uncomfortable anymore? The dreaded “Laters, baby” made another appearance, whistling awkwardly through the robotic mouth of our leading man, as well as Anastasia’s interesting pronunciation of her husband’s name, which she says as though she is performing a soliloquy in front of her high school drama class—“Chris-ti-an.” At one point, Ana’s friend tells her that marriage “suits you,” which is a weird thing to say to a 23(?)-year-old whose creepy controlling husband won’t let her see her friends or take her top off at a nude beach.
But to me, the grossest line in this movie was a single word, delivered smugly by Christian Grey to Mrs. Grey during a scene I do not, to be honest, really remember. “Hush.” Hush! If anyone ever tells me to “hush” in my entire life I will headbutt them and run away screaming, I swear to god.
I’m sorry to say, but the audience was perhaps more disappointing than the movie (As someone who did not fully make it through the first two Fifty Shades movies, I had high expectations of this “film” being bad, and honestly it exceeded them!). Not including Jezebel staff, there were about 25 people in the theater (three people weirdly came in during the last 15 minutes, and then stayed through the credits), most of whom were women. All of them, it quickly became apparent, were here to watch the movie with an amount of consideration and respect that it did not deserve.
After sitting through a series of trailers that advertised movies about white women obsessed with looking hot, having sex with men, or both, our feature film opened up on Ana and Christian tying the knot. I had expected some response from my two dozen compatriots at this point, but alas, Julianne’s “Woo!” at the nupital kiss was the only audible reaction. A few minutes later, when Christian is holding Ana’s hair like a wilted flower and braiding it tenderly, Ana said, “How come you always braid my hair?” No one laughed except the Jezebel staff. We laughed a third time at the unimaginative, unsuspenseful reveal of what was supposed to be a major revelation, the audience had turned us and gave us nasty looks. Kelly Stout lost her shit when an author named “Boyce Fox” appeared, and we got shushed. Forty-five minutes into the film, no one else had laughed or squealed or even gasped. In the end, everyone else walked out in silence while we bid farewell to this uninspiring, protracted romance between two paper dolls and clapped like assholes.
Around 6 p.m., Megan offered to go on a pre-movie booze run, but most of us were about done with work anyway, so it turned into a group trip, where we wandered around our local liquor emporium as if we were sophomores required to bring our own alcohol to a party thrown by seniors. We were giggly and it felt sort of illicit since I guess you’re not supposed to drink in movie theaters—a rule I’ve never actually read anywhere or been told explicitly, but was just sort born understanding.
Did you know you can buy wine in a can? You can buy wine in a can, and we bought five of those—four chilled chardonnays and a pinot noir—along with seven mini bottles of Wild Turkey, and two mini bottles of something else. We stuffed it all in Prachi’s backpack, which made us both nervous; we talked a lot, and too politely, when we asked where the bathroom in the theater was. I told Prachi to play it cool, but the truth is, I was projecting.
How drunk were we? I would say, enough. Enough that I really got the giggles and was personally shushed for laughing at the name of Ana’s new star fiction writer (Boyce Fox). Megan was shushed too, perhaps for laughing because in that same scene, Ana reviews the cover art for Boyce Fox’s book, apparently for the first time, mere days before it goes on sale?? After the show, the wine drinkers talked about the financing of Christian’s plane, while the whiskey drinkers, clearly wanting to go home, reminded us all of the fact that this a story about a shitty relationship between two extremely wealthy people.
I think in the past I’ve really given everyone some slack in the acting department when it comes to the Fifty Shades franchise. They’re working with truly awful material every movie, this one in particular, and it’s even funnier to watch the movies knowing the two leads allegedly hate each other in real life. If they can keep a steely straight face in the Red Room, I give them each a cookie.
But in Fifty Shades Freed I think it finally became clear to me that Johnson is the superior actor in this franchise. Her job is more difficult in the sense that Anastasia is our emotional guide throughout the movie and she’s the character audiences, assumedly, desire the most to be. Dornan can be a handsome slab of stone, but Anastasia really has to make us believe this is a real romance. It’s like she’s trying to wrench real intimacy out of both him and the script, really. And she does a good job this time around, especially in some of the more intense, violent scenes where she has to cry and sneak around stressfully. I was stressed for her! Even just watching them in the ice cream sex scene, Johnson looked like she was actually having fun.
The rest of the cast wasn’t as compelling. Dornan was more checked out than ever. In the middle of a car chase, who turns to the driver and says “lose him” that cavalierly? You can do a lot with that line! Give me something, give me anything! He should stick to playing psychopaths. And aside from Rita Ora, who is not a good actress but I respect her hustle, barely anyone’s performance stuck in my mind. But I do feel like I wanted more between Anastasia and Kate, honestly, as those very brief scenes felt more naturally intimate than anything going on between Christian and Anastasia. Overall, the acting in this movie was as wooden as ever.
For the entire series, the Fifty Shades wardrobe designers have been given the unenviable task of depicting a power differential between two wealthy Seattle normies who believe themselves to be living on the edge, and in this installment they did not disappoint. Anastasia continues to dress in sensible “book editor” shifts that make Ann Taylor Loft seem outré, and Christian wears steely suits except when he is wearing his faded/rugged “sex jeans,” which implies that British Fifty Shades author E.L. James’s ideal American man is John Cougar Mellencamp.
Still, there were interesting moments in the costuming. Moments like, Anastasia wearing a multicolored going-out top shipped in from 2005 and says the line, “Why would Jack do that, it’s insane!” Not as insane as that outfit, mami! Moments like, when noted Adidas ambassador Rita Ora just happened to be wearing a bright red Adidas track jacket in a pivotal scene. Moments like, when the camera pans to a DJ in a club and he is done up in a terrible side ponytail. Very Seattle! (It’s important to the filmmakers to craft a realistic portrayal.) The most interesting ensemble Anastasia got to wear this entire film was a hospital gown—light blue, navy checks, accessorized with an IV. Otherwise, it was pure Wendi Deng aspirational, via TJ Maxx. I loved every look.
The sex in the Fifty Shades movies is never great, which I attribute to it a) not being porn b) having a shaky working understanding of what BDSM is (is it the husband ordering the wife around and also failing to disclose that he owns a private jet???) c) because it’s a movie that needs to heighten, which has led the screenwriters (or E.L. James, I’m not sure how close this is to the source material) to use every sex scene to somehow advance the plot, which is not great if you want to portray sex as the respectful, quiet, uneventful activity that IT SHOULD BE!!!
There are several kinds of sex: newlywed sex in a French chateau (just a few humps while the camera pans), sex on a French boat after Christian has chastised Ana for showing off her breasts at a topless beach (Christian sucks?), in which he handcuffs her wrists to her ankles as a “punishment,” post-car chase sex, in which Ana is so horny from the excitement of driving an Audi fast through Seattle’s iconic winding highways (are those iconic?) that she has to get off in a parking lot. These all happen in the first act of the movie and are all brief, lasting for several humps, and perfectly inoffensive—even hot if you are really focusing hard.
Then Christian really turns into a villain that you should REPORT to the SEATTLE POLICE. A quick contextual plot summary is that Ana betrays his trust while he is in PORTLAND or some shit, and goes to get two (2) martinis with her blonde friend Kate at the Bunker Room. When she gets back, her stalker Jack is there, and attempts to abduct her with a litral machete. Christian is STEAMING MAD that she betrayed his trust by seeing one of her friends (??). After a day of him stewing, he greets her in his uncomfortably low-cut sex jeans and invites her to the Red Room where he essentially tortures her with a vibrator. ????? Don’t do that???? I feel for Dakota Johnson’s real (or stunt) vagina and am generally PUT OFF by the presence of this sex-as-revenge plot point. “Don’t use the Red Room as revenge,” Ana says after this incident. Extremely, extremely true.
After this point, the sex basically stops until they escape to a cabin and Christian feeds Ana’s vagina a spoonful of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and then much later when Christian sticks what LOOKS like a stainless steel kitchen implement, but is probably a very expensive sex toy from, say, Belgium, into her.
Also nobody asked me to do this but I did stay on chyron watch for all televisions that were on in the background of shots. There was only one, and it said: “IS THE FED ON TRACK?”