As now has become tradition, on Thursday evening, during the tail-end of a blizzard, nine Jezebel staffers trekked to the dreaded neighborhood of Penn Station to view Fifty Shades Darker, the second film based off the series of books that rocked the nation’s underwear clean off.
As is also now tradition, preparations had been made. Tickets were purchased ahead of time for a theater where there were reserved seats, to prevent anyone from having to sit in the front row. Alcoholic beverages of everyone’s choice were also acquired. Assignments were made as to which delectable part of the film each person should pay attention to.
This is what came of it.
The chemistry of the leads in Fifty Shades Darker was much better than it was in Fifty Shades of Grey, which is saying something considering the fact that Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan basically spend all of Darker acting like college roommates who, after finally getting over their initial differences, realize that they might make decent friends or, at the very least, tolerable study buddies. As a fan of Dornan’s other work, I felt validated in my initial theory that his TERRIBLE acting in the first movie was a fluke based on being brought in last minute to replace Charlie Hunnam, In Darker, he is much less wooden and clumsy with the accent work (at least as much as a clumsy, wooden character like Christian Grey can allow) and very handsome in his beard. Yes, I think he’s hot. SUE ME.
Dakota Johnson continues her surprising reign over my heart, once again bringing the bulk of the electricity and charisma that allows you to believe that maybe, possibly, Anastasia and Christian could be real people that enjoy bouncing their parts against each other. Ultimately, regardless of anything Johnson and Dornan can do, I like to think that they’ve accepted that they’re part of an impossibly dumb story and the greatest thing they can do is have fun with it. Like when Christian showed Ana his no-no zones by having her trace them with her lipstick, creating what looked like the outline of a sheer crop top. Hilarious. I hope they had a good laugh about that one.
Anyway, this movie and these characters are so stupid, but Johnson and Dornan are doing their best. And this time, unlike last time, I kind of liked watching them together, especially during the exceptionally bad dialogue and fuck parts, which is to say the whole movie.
While the secondary characters in the first Fifty Shades were given little development, slightly more thought was put into their plot purpose here. Not one, but several villains played key roles in the movie (they had to balance out all the lust), as Ellie noted when she turned to me and whispered, “They have so many enemies...” It’s true. Christian’s past sex life turns up in mysterious ways to show Ana and us that HE HAS LAYERS. First, there’s Leila, the scraggly stalker who we’re introduced to in a specifically creepy way. It seemed like she’d have a prominent storyline based on the trailer, but she mostly exists as a disturbing backdrop meant to illuminate Christian’s dark past. Doe she add a nice ghoulish element? Yes. Could they have done much more with her? Yes.
The other force of evil in play is Jack, Ana’s hot intimidating boss at the book publishing company who steps outside his boundaries. Do they flesh him out? Of course not. Does he have a purpose? Yes, to serve as a dick and be a foil to Ana’s alarmingly fast career advancement. Without a doubt, the character with the most fascinating presence is Elaina, aka Mrs. Robinson, the woman who abused Christian (played by Kim Basinger). Every scene with her is like watching a sinister soap opera matriarch and Basinger really sold it. But the real star of the supporting cast is Rita Ora, reprising her role as Christian’s peripheral loving sister Mia. Not only does she have a significantly larger presence here than in the first film, she also has many lines of excellent dialogue, including when she says, “Ooh, perfect.” It’s almost as if the filmmakers answered our prayers.
Maybe it’s because of my extra-large sprite and vodka mixed drink, maybe it’s because my expectations were spectacularly low, but the script did not seem that bad this time! I didn’t even take that many notes:
I think this was partly because they just gave Jamie Dornan fewer words to bungle with his awful American accent; he mostly just breathed with his mouth open and buttoned and unbuttoned his shirt. Most of the lines they did give him made me extremely uncomfortable: (To his sister Rita Ora) “Mia, enough.” (On his mother) “She was an addict—crack. Fill in the blank.” (To Anastasia) “I don’t know whether to worship at your feet or spank you.”
Dakota Johnson’s delivery skills are really a thing to behold, but for the second Fifty Shades movie in a row, she did have to reference “Austen and Bronte” (“I was reading Austen and Bronte and nobody measured up to that,” she said by way of explanation as to why Christian was the first person she’d slept with). Her character also kept, for some reason, turning down large checks from her billionaire boyfriend and saying things like “Christian, you know I love working,” as though she is a 40-year-old mother of two pushing to keep her career going amid family responsibilities and not a recent college graduate whose book publishing boss wants to literally kill her!! As a side note, has book publishing ever, in the history of book publishing, been this dangerous and this eager to promote assistants? I think definitely not?
One of the reasons Fifty Shades Darker’s trashiness goes down as easy as it does is because Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are actually quite good at their jobs. Though they don’t appear to be giving more than, oh, 75 percent of their potential (no one’s staying up late doing character work here), that’s more than enough for the kind of movie whose audience expects to shout at the screen.
But even though they brought real talent to their roles, credit should also be given to the franchise’s new director, James Foley, who managed to ignore the title and lighten up the lead performances. Foley embraced the story’s absurdity, and was able to extract a playfulness from Johnson and Dornan that Sam Taylor-Johnson (who directed the first installment) either couldn’t or chose not to. At last, these two seem like they like fucking each other.
It’s been a few years since I read the Fifty Shades books, though I will note that I’ve read them all and I’ve actually read them twice (I have no excuse nor explanation for this). That being said, the details have not stayed with me, but I remember enough to say that the E.L. Jamesian writing and plot devices of the first seem to have been quelled in this movie. Following reporting about how much she clashed with Taylor-Johnson, Foley seems to have better luck wrangling her; the dialogue that made me wince so much in the first cropped up more rarely (i.e. Ana calling Christian’s sexual predications “kinky fuckery”).
Christian’s controlling ways are toned down even more than they were in the first film; in the book, he prevents Ana from taking a work trip to New York, while in the movie, she chooses not to go after they discuss it. Ana too has much more agency; after Christian forces her to take money from him over a car (I’m not even going to get into it it’s so dumb), she bids the same amount at a charity auction hosted by his parents to get rid of it. But there are so many plot points in the book that getting rid of some was necessary for a movie that still felt like there was a lot going on, and they were barely missed. In hindsight, the first movie suffered from what I’ll call the Harry Potter syndrome—trying to satiate the fans by making a product a facsimile of the original thing.
To prepare for last night’s screening I accidentally ate nothing but 15 horrible almonds (I hate almonds) and drank one full soda cup of sprite and vodka. I was in a great mood, I did not notice how long the movie was (it seemed the right length), I was with my pals. I thought everything was basically great.
But, let’s focus on the sex. The different kinds of sex: Make up sex, your life was in danger sex, my life was in danger sex, mid-party in your parents’ house sex, elevator finger sex, engagement sex, what I wrote down in my notes was “hekuxiotre crash sex,” but I think that means “helicopter crash sex.” What was good: basically nonstop puss eating, some nice gentle throwing around, Ana’s always matching panty set, Christian’s body and face. Also, I relate to Ana, because I have the exact same bangs and was also once an assistant to man book editor (although my experience could not have been more starkly opposite), so I felt like all of this was happening to me. What was bad: No trunk shot, just a tuft of Jamie Dornan pubes, lingerie continuity errors (was she wearing that black lacy thing to the masquerade ball, but when they have mid-party sex it disappears?), the line, “I was being romantic and then you go and distract with your kinky fuckery.” What I didn’t understand: Those metal marbles he shoved up her vagina for the ball.
I was taking notes on my iPhone and to hide the light I hid it under my coat while I was writing. This move easily could have been misinterpreted to be me doing some diddling in a crowded movie theater surrounded by my coworkers, so during every sex scene I made a conscious effort to take my hands out from under my coat and put them where they could be seen. Again, I was pretty drunk. Overall grade: A+!
It’s hard to top Beyoncé moan-singing one of her classic pop hits, like she did for Fifty Shades of Grey. Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik did indeed fail to top it, but their contribution to the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack was still hotly anticipated. Entering the movie I wondered: where would it be used? During a fisting scene? When Christian introduces Ana to his pedophile ex? I was all wound up, panting to find out. My film experience started on a low note, as the man next to me had ordered a movie hot dog, which is not a smell that screams “sex,” but I’m sure he didn’t love me taking frantic deranged notes at regular intervals either. The first recognizable song was another cover, of Coldplay’s “Back to the Start” over a montage of Ana mournfully going to work and Bullet Journaling in the park as she thinks of her recent ex, who hit her too hard with a stick at her urging. The music stayed peppy and supportive of perfunctory exposition until the moment Christhian Grey appears, at which point the score becomes a kind of creepy yet hot instrumental WOOweeWOHHWeeoooooAAh.
One thing I noticed is that every time Ana and Christian fuck (which they do A LOT more than I was prepared for in this sequel despite having read the books) a new song is introduced like BLAM. It just really underscores...and actually scores...how dancing is just fucking in public with your clothes on. This also meant that I missed the first few moments of every sex scene to write down something completely incomprehensible and elbow the hot dog guy, who was having nachos as a second course.
Special mention must go to dreamboat José James, who is credited as “gala crooner” on IMDB. In a movie that goes out of its way to either emasculate the other men who desire Ana or show them to be rape-y pervs who she needs to be authoritatively distanced from, it was nice to simply enjoy a handsome guy who can sing. He mostly covers some classics for a bunch of rich people in Venetian masks as Ana gets pounded upstairs to yet another track with a strong bass line.
The dreaded elevator fingering scene was accompanied by elevator music, I think Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” which unfortunately made me wonder if my parents did this at some point.
Then! FINALLY, “I Don’t Want to Live Forever” arrived! Right when we least expected or needed it, just after Ana and Christian mused about a lonely Sea Widow’s coastline mansion from their boat, as Christian gave Ana the wheel. She didn’t immediately crash them both into the rocks despite Zayn Malik’s screams about not wanting to live forever. She reveled in her psychotically controlling boyfriend giving her a chance to drive and it was wonderful. Everyone from Jezebel howled. The hot dog guy didn’t love that either.
There was also a Sia song.
Before the movie, staff boy Bobby Finger made a run to the liquor store, which resulted in $80 worth of pint-size liquor bottles for each of us to stash in our handbags—Jameson, Smirnoff, some off-brand vino that looked like something they’d give you with room service at a Holiday Inn, and “Maestro Dobel Diamond Tequila.” He brought disposable cups for us to make mixed drinks from booze and fountain soda, because he is classy. “The last time I did this was over a year ago at The Force Awakens,” he said, ever the movie mixologist. “I’m excited,” said Kate Dries, “But I’m nervous something is going to go wrong.”
We passed pints between us like sneaky 12th graders, but the liquor seemed to mostly affect Bobby, who told me on the train ride home that the darkness of the theater meant he couldn’t see how much vodka he was pouring into his soda. This made the experience more enjoyable for everyone, however, particularly during one rather absurd moment when Anastasia tore up the check for thousands of dollars and Bobby loudly gasped before yelling, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME???” At another point Madeleine Davies, not to be outdone, exclaimed “Show us some D!” Alas, there was no d, and none of us were probably drunk enough to make the movie any better. “I was drunk enough for everyone,” said Bobby.
The audience was, I’d say, about 10-20 percent Jezebel staffers. This was not a packed theater, which is nice when you’re going to see a sex movie. The aforementioned huge snowstorm had happened earlier in the day, so you know the people who were present really wanted it.
There were lots of cheers for the sex, gasps when Christian’s stalker and Christian’s older lady corrupter appeared on screen, and a collective murmur of agreement when Madeleine yelled “Show the dick!”
My only other note was that the woman sitting next to me DID NOT AT ALL enjoy the trailer for the movie Life. She said to the person sitting next to her at the sex movie based off the plot for the teen movie Twilight, “Everything is so dramatic these days.” She’s right!