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Fifty Shades Darker: Movie Review

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I get it. I’m not the target audience for Fifty Shades Darker. So what? I appreciate that life has more to offer than hot wings and beer. Full disclosure, I love hot wings and beer. While Darker is far from perfect, it manages that rare cinematic feat of being a sequel surpassing its predecessor in quality. Critics almost universally panned Fifty Shades of Grey, but audiences supported it, with the domestic box office alone quadrupling the $40 million budget. Still, nobody I’ve talked to seems to love it, including fans of the novels. The Fifty Shades movies remind me of AM/PM cheeseburgers; they’re nobody’s favorite, but somebody’s eating them. Full disclosure, I like those disgusting burgers. Whatever the movies’ shortcomings, that this franchise has created fervent and dedicated followers points to either a disconnect between the novels and the films or a shortsighted dismissal of the story’s essential appeal.

Fifty Shades Darker picks up where the first installment left off, with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a billionaire in the streets, bondage fan in the sheets, trying to win the forgiveness of his erstwhile lover, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Whereas the original played like an odd story about the unlikely coupling of two very different people, Darker layers intrigue and danger onto the continuation of this pair’s peculiar and sordid tale. The stakes are higher for the couple this time, as they confront mysterious external threats in addition to the struggle of navigating a relationship with someone wearing deep emotional scars.

Perhaps the most challenging part of adapting these novels for the big screen is the sex scenes. The books are famously explicit. Faithful adherence to the source material surely would have earned an NC-17 rating. An R rating made the the first movie more financially successful, but came at the cost of sex scenes that felt tame. Though Fifty Shades Darker is about as sexually explicit as an R rating will allow, to his credit, director James Foley cleverly dialed up the intensity of Darker’s sex scenes without taking an over-the-top approach, whether through nudity or by exploiting the more sinister tools in Mr. Grey’s red room.

As with all sequels, Darker must be judged in the context of its predecessor and on its own, however unfair that may be. Despite its improvements, the latest iteration carries over flaws and shows us some new ones. The chemistry between Steele (Johnson) and Grey (Dornan) works well enough in erotic scenes, but can feel forced at other times. Dornan is believable enough as the complicated billionaire, but the naiveté and innocence we’re meant to associate with Steele (Johnson) feels overly demure. The couple’s inconsistent chemistry makes Grey’s (Dornan) fascination with Steele (Johnson) somewhat puzzling. More generally, ever-shifting and inexplicable character choices suggest motivations that too often feel arbitrary.

As often is the case with novels adapted to the big screen, Darker deviates from its source material in some notable ways. As for whether the liberties taken by the filmmakers are for better or worse, I’ll defer to die-hard fans of the franchise. Of course, on the continuum of perversion, Grey’s sadism is just creepy enough to not be a permanent deal breaker. Being a beautiful billionaire helps, too. On the surface, the relationship dynamic seems straight forward, but understanding the basic shape of the connection between these two characters doesn’t begin to explain the phenomenal success this franchise has enjoyed. Understanding the appeal of a Christian Grey is more layered and nuanced than this movie has the capacity to convey.

There are a few movie sins Darker is far from alone in committing. Case in point: the way-too-luxurious apartment for a personal assistant. Ultimately, the meta question at the heart of this franchise is patently absurd: whether one woman’s love is enough to save a crazy sex pervert. At best, the question serves a fun, escapist story. At worst, it reinforces the mistaken belief that we can mold our partners into forms we find more agreeable. That said, having rational underpinnings is by no means a prerequisite for cinematic excellence. Some of my favorite movies are dumb down to their core. What’s important is recognizing how ridiculous the premise is; it might be the only way to watch Fifty Shades Darker and have a good time.

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)
Director:  James Foley
Studio: Focus
Genre:  Drama/ Romance
MPAA:  R
Release Date:  February 10th, 2017
Author:  Jason M. Brown

Jason M. Brown Seattle native Jason M. Brown traded liquid sunshine for the real thing when he recently moved to San Diego. Jason graduated from Washington State University with a Humanities degree focusing on English and has worked as a copywriter. An avid fan of comedy, horror, and almost any movie that started as a comic book, Jason lives in California, but still loves Seattle Seahawks football, apologies to the Chargers.

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