“Fifty Shades of Grey,” the tedious new romantic comedy, purports to be about sex, but is instead about two hours too long. In it, a college student named Anastasia Steele falls immediately for a striking billionaire named Christian Grey, who unlike most very good looking very wealthy people, turns out to be something of a jerk. He decides that he sees something in her that he wants, and as a person who is accustomed to getting whatever he wants, he engages in a bit of gentle stalking — popping by her hardware store workplace, for instance, or turning up at her apartment to take his shirt off — before wooing her with such baubles as helicopter rides and a new car. She’s powerless to resist. Then he shows her a fancy room in his fancy apartment where he likes to do his most loving Marquis de Sade impersonations, and Steele, heretofore a virgin, begins to have second thoughts.
The movie adaptation of the preposterously best-selling E. L. James novel will not explain, in any convincing way, why that book became one of the fastest-selling ever. Apparently the sex was much more abundant and much trashier, for starters. The movie, however, is bad in the way that a terrible horror movie is terrible: so exhaustingly dull that it saps your will even to laugh at it, plotted with an almost malicious disregard for its audience’s attention. The ending, spinning ahead to the inevitable sequels, stops at what feels like a moment for a commercial break in a daytime soap. Then, the credits roll.
Sympathies must go to fans of the books, as there’s no way to pack any 512-page novel into a satisfying 125-minute movie. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, working from a script by Kelly Marcel, shows off how to do this in as painful manner as possible, focusing on the scenes and portions of the script that feature almost no meaning to the words. Admittedly, this is how James apparently wrote much of the dialogue in the first place. Grey (played here by the capable abs of Jamie Dornan) is a damaged sort, given to clipped statements about how little he feels. This may make for an appealing archetype for romance novels and fairy tales (look how he broods! If only someone could reach him…!) but it makes for tendentious cinema. It’s hard to feel attached to a character whose flawless bone structure has apparently short-circuited whichever muscles would’ve enabled him to crack a smile.
Dakota Johnson as Ana has to lug the mute brute through scene upon scene; she, at least, found a full person to inhabit here. Ana’s actually endearing, and as she enters into a sexual dynamic predicated on control, restraint and pain, she at least has the good sense to push back. The motivating device for this negotiation is literally a contract Grey insists she sign. What could’ve been 10 minutes of discussion about where he wants to take this fine romance instead lopes interminably. By the time Grey asks whether she thinks the contract is redundant, you want to reply that yes, it is, so why did we just spend an hour brokering it?
The “Fifty Shades” books got credit (and made mad bank) for sanitizing kinky sex in such a way that otherwise upstanding folks could get a primer on bondage delivered in the e-book equivalent of a plain brown parcel. The sex scenes in the movie take even that fun out it. There’s no spontaneity or intimacy — let alone, like, noise or sweat or obvious passion. This is a Ken doll wrapping a tie around Barbie’s wrists and then clanking against her in anatomically ambiguous nakedness. Sex of this type is supposed to hurt a little, but not as you watch.
This whole enterprise is high-budget camp without the proper good sense to indulge in its own nonsense. Here’s a dare. Grey’s safe word is “red.” Try to get through any given 20 minutes of this schlockheap without letting your mind steal over to the thought of a flashing stoplight or a racing fire truck or a plate of ziti and marinara. Red, you’ll think. Red, dammit, RED.