Fifty Shades Darker, the second movie in the trilogy based on the best-selling erotica series by E.L. James, certainly looks darker — the shadows are blacker, the skies are grayer, the rain is heavier. Every day in this movie feels like Sunday. But if you’re looking for an exploration of the more unnerving and dismaying aspects of human sexuality, you won’t find it here — except for maybe in the main character’s willingness to put up with abusive behavior.
At the end of the first film, newly sexually woke Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) walks out on billionaire boyfriend Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) after experiencing, per her request, the worst of his sadistic tendencies: an ass-flogging that probably prohibited sitting for at least a week. Definitely not her cup of tea (because even though she lives in Seattle, the cradle of Starbucks, she prefers English Breakfast — that’s how quirky and free-spirited she is). Audiences could practically hear “I Will Survive” playing in her head as the penthouse elevators doors closed and she said goodbye firmly and forcefully to Christian forever.
Or at least until he shows up one minute into the new movie, with an apparent protein shake addiction and even worse hair pie than before, asking for her back. (Seriously, we don’t know how the film’s stylists managed to make hot Jamie Dornan not hot, but they succeeded spectacularly.) Despite numerous red flags that his old, controlling habits are proving hard to break — he says “I don’t like strangers gawking at you,” tries to order her food at a restaurant, threatens to carry her over his shoulder caveman style if she won’t come along with him, buys the publishing company she’s now working for — Ana throws caution to the wind, lays down a few ground rules (i.e. “no more rules”), makes him go grocery shopping for vanilla ice cream (for real), and takes him back in a snap.
This time around, the obstacles to their love include a manipulative, controlling, sexually abusive boss (but not in the “good” way like Christian); a mentally unstable ex-submissive of Grey’s who’s so jealous of Ana she wants to shoot her in the face; and Christian’s first lover (Kim Bassinger who shows up in a kick-ass tux), the older woman whose sexual domination of him years ago transformed him from a troubled teen (with a “Chronicles of Riddick” poster in his childhood bedroom) into a disciplined business mogul (with an Edvard Munch original hanging in his adult bedroom). Save for a single surprising gun shot, these plot lines are plodding. Despite the elegant set design, high-end wardrobes and tasteful mood lighting, they can’t be saved from the fact they were born of horrendously written fan fiction. We don’t even get to see Grey crash-land his helicopter, which he walks away from with a little head scratch and some tousled hair (the best it looks in the entire two hours!), not simply because that kind of scene just wasn’t in the budget, but because that kind of scene is just simply preposterous.
But, let’s be honest, who’s going to see a Fifty Shades movie for the plot twists and character development? You go to Fifty Shades for the sex. So did it deliver in that department? Yes and no.
On the plus side, there’s quite a bit of cunnilingus for an R-rated movie (and no fellatio) — many a straight woman’s dream come true. Several scenes have a sense of humor, which grounds them and makes them more relatable. In one instance, when Christian seductively presents Ana with some Ben Wa balls and asks her to try them, she says flatly, “No, you’re not putting those in my butt” (FYI: they’re meant for the vagine). In another, when Grey catches her snooping around his playroom of kinky accessories after meeting his housekeeper, she asks, “Does she dust in here?” (the very same question that crossed my mind just three seconds earlier as she fondled the drawers of blindfolds and nipple clamps!). And Jamie Dornan’s sculpted pecs and abs get some loving attention from the cinematographer — we even get to see some of his rather fluffy, pre-stem pubes!
The highlight is the elevator scene (pictured below), which comes closest to capturing the erotic appeal of the entire franchise: a woman being teased, tantalized and talked dirty to in a taboo way without the expectation of reciprocation. There’s no obligatory female nudity, no over-the-top performative moaning, just a girl enjoying the secret, sexual attention of a boy she likes in a way and in a place they’re not really “supposed” to. The scene’s effectiveness to arouse stems from what it doesn’t show — viewers are allowed to use their own imagination to fill in the erotic blanks as they see fit, as was the case with the Fifty Shades books (and is so often not the case with your typical porn, soft-core or otherwise).
Had more of the sex scenes taken this slower, more cerebral approach, the movie would have come closer to fulfilling its erotic potential. But as is too often the case in real life, much of the sex lacked foreplay, felt rushed, and ended with your standard pelvic thrusts — perhaps a casualty of having a man (James Foley) direct this time. There was very little in the way of actual kink, which is all about creating tension and suspense. For instance, dripping oil on a woman’s breasts and kneading them like soft dough does not exactly grant you automatic membership in the The Eulenspiegel Society. When they did get around to some actual spanking, it lacked oomph: no build-up, no alternating of cheeks, no caressing between the three — count ’em, three — measly whacks. And once again, there was not enough male nudity. A bit of butt crack and one full body shot from the back that you’d miss if you blinked just won’t cut it, especially when any of us movie-goers could pick out Dakota Johnson’s breasts from a lineup by now!
Even the emotionally climactic scene in the second book, in which Christian reverts to his teenage submissiveness in a panicked effort to keep Ana from leaving him, is pretty ho-hum in the movie. We don’t see his trauma-induced vulnerability, we don’t sense the power dynamic seismically shift, we don’t feel the electricity between them when he finally allows her to touch his scarred chest. They seem to just be going through the motions — two ambitious actors perhaps a bit embarrassed by the cheesiness of this whole lucrative project.
The movie’s saving grace, once again, is its soundtrack, with songs by Halsey, Sia, JP Cooper, Anderson East and Jeff Buckley (though you won’t find this last one on the official album). Let Fifty Shades Darker inspire your own playlist and then have the kind of sex to it that you’ll wished you’d seen in the movie.