“Fifty Shades of Grey” author E.L. James should count her blessings as she counts her millions.
Her best-selling book — which, despite its popularity, is pretty rough source material — was stripped of its worst parts and turned into a surprisingly warm screenplay by Kelly Marcel (“Saving Mr. Banks”).
The director of the much-anticipated adaptation, Sam Taylor-Johnson, made what could have been a trashy TV movie into well-conceived cinema.
And James’s heroine, Anastasia Steele — a character who spends much of the “Fifty” trilogy rambling on about her “inner goddess” and her obsession with her controlling boyfriend — is turned into a human by Dakota Johnson, a comedic actress who manages to make the character seem like someone worth knowing.
It’s Johnson who saves the day as Ana, a graduating college senior who is sent to interview the dapper and brooding 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey. The loner businessman tells Ana that his tastes are “singular.” By that he means he likes S&M. He’s a dominant in search of a submissive who will take orders and spankings in the “red room” of his penthouse, which is stocked with toys for pleasure and pain.
Critics of James’s books have said that the S&M in the story is laughable. Maybe so. Christian succumbs to cuddling almost as often as he spanks.
The sex in the movie follows a similar path. “Fifty” has more sex scenes than your typical R-rated film, but the content isn’t any more shocking than what’s on cable. Shows like “Sons of Anarchy” and “Outlander” have just as many bare butts and tight shots of intercourse.
Really, the sexiest parts of the film aren’t the sex scenes (which sort of become tedious), but rather the banter between Ana and Christian as they set the terms of their relationship.
Johnson (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), who charmed with shrugs and eye-rolls on the short-lived Fox comedy “Ben and Kate,” helps turn James’s tale into an unexpected romantic comedy. The best vignettes have her fully clothed and working to get a laugh out of Christian, played with awkwardness by Irish actor Jamie Dornan.
Dornan isn’t unlikable, but his Christian comes off as an angry geek as opposed to a cool guy. His discomfort — and constant constipation face — doesn’t help with chemistry, but it does turn Christian Grey into a guy who could exist. Whereas James’s Christian is superhuman with a dash of “American Psycho,” Dornan’s version is a just a 27-year-old introvert pretending to be bad. He’s the least dominant dominant — a guy who’d much prefer to be told what to do.
It’s only when Christian becomes the star of the story that the film starts to get tiresome. The second half is too focused on why Mr. Grey is such a bummer. Even Ana starts to look bored.
For those who don’t know, the real source material here is actually “Twilight,” the young adult vampire series by Stephenie Meyer. James’s three-part S&M saga started out as fan fiction based on Meyer’s stories. Anastasia Steele is the clumsy heroine inspired by Bella Swan. Christian Grey is James’s Edward Cullen (he’s into spanking as opposed to blood sucking).
Watching the adaptation of “Fifty” makes it clear how much the story borrows from “Twilight,” specifically the films. The first big shot of Johnson has her dressed as if she’s wearing a Kristen Stewart costume for Halloween. Later, a scene in which Ana meets her friend Jose (the “Fifty Shades” version of Taylor Lautner’s Jacob) looks like a knockoff — the “Twilight” version of “Grease 2.”
Ana and Christian’s first big sex scene is set to a haunting song by Sia, who also performed the tune that plays when Bella and Edward get engaged in the third installment of “Twilight.”
The parallels aren’t a problem — fans of the vampire franchise will be thrilled. James’s fans should be, too. It was “Twilight,” after all, that hooked them in the first place.