Friday, February 17, 2017

Regret Watch: Fifty Shades Darker (2017) - Pumpkin Spiced Softcore

Editor's Note:  This post is full of spoilers, judgment, bad judgment, semi-frank talk that admits to the existence of sex and particular sexual preferences.  It's also too long and I regret everything.

While those of you who don't follow your worst instincts were out seeing Lego Batman, I spent my movie-going weekend once again teamed up with AmyC, taking in Fifty Shades Darker (2017), the Twilight fan-fiction gone rogue which has taken on a life of its own as a beast of unstoppable proportions.  We attended an official "rowdy" screening at The Alamo Drafthouse, where audience members were encouraged to provide their own Springer-esque "whoooooo"s and "ooooooooh"s.  Really, a sensible approach in a theater that serves some pretty decent cocktails, and one deployed during Magic Mike screenings, I am led to understand.

My interest in the Fifty Shades phenomenon is at least 1-part anthropological study.  There's some schadenfreude in there and definitely some straight up morbid curiosity.  But I am curious as to what-goes-on out there in the movie-going world of which I am not a part, especially when something is a huge success, and I am pretty far outside the demographic.

Unlike my go at seeing the first film in this series, I did no legwork to prepare.  With no review of the prior film,  I mostly forgot the subplots and minor characters from the first movie, recalling the movie as a blur of boredom, threadbare plotting, inane dialog, oddly dull sex and vexing characterization.  If the mark of a good movie worthy of a sequel is that you want to spend more time with the characters (see: Guardians of the Galaxy), Fifty Shades of Grey did nothing to make me care what was happening to either character.

That said - I am not the target demo.  I like talking raccoons with machine guns.

But, here we are. two years later, and I have borne witness to Fifty Shades Darker, the second in the inevitable trilogy of movies about Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, and based, glaringly, on episodically written fan-fiction.  While I am the first to say that this is better than the first installment (less in the way of tastefully shot, lengthy sex scenes that felt like moving stills from a Sears catalog), it's still a movie with a lot of questionable messaging, tremendously bad plotting, open-ended questions that will never be resolved, and two people that - after two movies of watching them go - one no longer just finds dull but cringe-worthy.

But, if CW-worthy characterization unevenly sprinkled with some pretty basic sex on screen (a huge novelty here in 2017) is your thing, man, have I got a movie for you.

Now, making fun of a movie like Fifty Shades Darker is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.  Between the plot holes, vaudevillian melodrama, iffy sexual politics, and a narratively as good as you'd expect from a thousand page first draft Twilight fanfic to be - we're in an uphill battle if we're expecting a Picture of the Year nomination.

But I'd argue the folks who showed up are way past giving a damn whether anything on the bright screen in front of them is deserving of critical consideration - and they aren't alone in this era of a half-dozen Transformers movies.  Specifically, one must assume the audience here falls right in the middle of a Venn-Diagram of fans of The Bachelor/ regrettable top-forty radio/ those for whom the idea of anything remotely naughty in their Google search history is too scandalous a thought to bear.  The outrageous success of the books and movies demonstrate that they clearly serve a function, and - really, I hope it's working out for everyone involved.

As mentioned - we attended the "rowdy" screening, and, indeed, for 4:00 on a Sunday, they were a somewhat lively bunch.  We certainly had a few shout outs, hoots and hollers.  No doubt a Friday night screening might have reached greater levels of rambunctiousness.  I'd guess I was one of seven guys in a theater that was more than 70% sold out (the ticket clerk told us when we grabbed our tickets), which is pretty good for the showing we took in.

But let's be clear - once you get past the gloss and promise of on-screen sex - the narrative and concepts supporting the main attractions make for a badly plotted story hinging entirely on fetishizing wealth (far more than leather gear) and forgiving - indeed, romanticizing - behavior that would be the makings of a stalker/thriller film if Christian Grey were middle class and a horror film if he were working class.

Instead, the poster for the movie promises "a fairy tale".

this dreamy man has separated me from my previous life and made me financially dependent upon him

To catch you up - the first film was about a virgin on the verge of graduating college who meets the 27-year-old self-made billionaire*, Christian Grey.  for reasons never explained in the movie, Grey is utterly captivated by what is this basic bitch.  Grey stalks Ana relentlessly, she gives in to his charms, learns of his fetishes and then he spends 1/2 the movie going over a contract with her about all the BDSM stuff he'd sure like to do on her (if you like contract negotiation, boy howdy, do I have a movie for YOU).  Somewhere in the middle, they fall for each other, she doesn't sign the contract, but is willing to try maybe a Category 1 idea (spanked with braided belt), and is somehow taken by surprise by what's happening, calls Grey a cad and runs out.  Movie ends.

The Mary Sue aspect (screw it, it's the most convenient term) of the first book carries over here big-time.  Everything that occurs is about Anastasia.  All of the characters are deeply concerned about Ana, and quite fond of her.  Heck - some good, cheap melodrama is drained from the series by the fact that Christian's adoptive mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden working for a paycheck here, spends most of her lines telling Ana how good she is for her son.  The icy rivalry is filled. instead, by Harden's friend, Kim Basinger, who is seen as the dark figure who led Christian down the primrose path into BDSM (which, you know, had Kim Basinger come around when I was in high school, I could have been talked into quite a bit).

While Christian Grey is momentarily out of Anastasia's life (we're not really told how much time has passed, but it hasn't been the two years since we checked in last), she goes to a gallery show by her college pal who still moons over her, Poor José.  The highlight of the show is a series of gigantic photos of Ana which Poor José didn't tell her he was taking or using (which is possibly illegal, but definitely not cool).  Of course the pictures are a hit and sell to Christian.  And despite the fact Ana literally just promised to go to dinner with Poor José, she immediately leaves with Christian.  Because, you know, Poor José is a doormat and there to show how all males want to be with Ana.

It's worth noting the baffling ending to Fifty Shades of Grey here again, which, in the real world, is when a person with the slightest flicker of self-awareness would realize "yeeaaaahhh... this probably isn't going to work out.  We might want different things."  Instead, here Christian swears he's hanging up his riding crop for good.  No more spankies for him.  If all Anastasia wants is missionary on the third Wednesday of the month with the lights off, just before Jimmy Kimmel comes on, okay.  Apparently modestly attractive English Lit majors with no definite personality other than sexual hangups simply do not grow on trees in Seattle.  And forget the literally $500,000 personal dungeon he's built - he's not *that* into his kink, it seems.

The two immediately get back together and go buy ice cream and green peppers.  So, clearly whatever made her break up with him and was so traumatic that it couldn't be talked out in about twenty minutes.  Which takes a lot of wind out of the sails of the last movie's finale.

But then, if we consider the source material was originally chapter-based, endless slash-fic kinda pounded out into the internets (so to speak) with no real arcs planned out, and the books are just that with breaks because a 900 page Penthouse Forum letter, and that it's a little bit of an awkward sell vs. three 300 page books - it all starts to gel.

Because it's so incident-based - I literally kept thinking the movie was about to end.  There's sorta/ maybe an arc for the characters if you really want to bend reality in your head and say "well, yeah, I guess that's a logical progression of events for normal humans, too.  Maybe not in the two week time-frame of the movie, but..."

Otherwise, it's just a bunch of shit happening with a hokey set-up and a pay-off a few scenes later.  Boss is too nice?  Confrontation.  Creepy girl shows up?  Confrontation.  It's tied together only in that it happens to Ana, not in that it advances the plot.  Not really.  Even the scene with the creepy girl seems like it could have been the tipping point to the last third of the movie - giving the characters (and therefore the audience) a whole lot to think about and work out on screen.  But just like in the first movie, all Anastasia does is run away for a couple of hours, then come back.  It's just a blip.

But, seriously, unpacking whatever was going on with Christian and the creepy girl (a former submissive) and wondering what Christian did in the past that made this former lover go crazy and still allow Christian to have a hold like that over her - despite the fact he states she was married to someone else inbetween.  And, honestly, what sort of slippery slope is Anastasia herself on...?

Never addressed.  Just tossed out the window.

Instead, Ana just had icky feelings and wondered if this was going to work out.  She just witnessed sexual Jedi mindtricks and all she can think is "I dunno, he used to like to spank that girl.".  It's all set up with a pay-off that should be there - but there's virtually no impact.  Instead, it's treated as a way that Christian can use his super BDSM powers and save the day.  It's just really half-assed story telling with no concept of character outside of Ana's middle-of-the-road characterization.

Every trauma is there to just reflect back some more mundane relationship issue, keeping the spotlight on Ana.  The crazy stalker is just a ghost of girifriends past.  The rapey-boss is the threat of sex with any other man (he didn't even provide a contract!).  Christian's helicopter crashes in the middle of the forested mountains, but that whole scenario is just there to force Anastasia to get freaked out about the fragility of life so she will absolutely marry the guy who keeps controlling her every movement, thought, and dressing her as he likes.

If anything really drove home how half-baked and uncondensed the plotting of the film, it's the 3 or 4 - depending on how you want to count it - engagement scenes in the film.  Anastasia and Christian get "engaged" when he wakes up from his nightly night terrors and, in a sweat, he asks her to marry him.  Later, she tells him her answer is "yes" (which I missed that she didn't say "yes" the first time somehow).  Then he surprises her when he announces their engagement at his big birthday party full of useless extras (she has no ring, which they will pick out together).   Then an hour later he asks her to marry him again with a ring he did not pick out with her at all.

It's almost like EL James was making shit up as she went along...

I assume James wanted all of her romantic bases covered.  But it just feels like pornography for people who like seeing people get engaged.

What's so odd about the popularity of the series, or perhaps not odd at all, is how the overarching arc is about taming the bad-boy, making Christian Grey as boring as Anastasia Steele.  He's apparently a business wiz, built like a Greek God, has BDSM-hypno-sex powers that work on everyone but Anastasia.  He owns boats and helicopters which he can pilot.  And she...  uh... she's nice, I guess.

If you accept that for some reason this guy would actually be that smitten - that her dream is to find out what makes him tick and then make it go away (I've glanced at the Wikipedia plot synopsis for the next book in the series, and it is...  not looking up for us here, people) to be horrified by his sexual past and shame him for it constantly - what, exactly, is going on here?

Is the real fantasy at play that a young woman will find someone seemingly edgy who can promise her eternal material comfort and she can wear him down to a boring nub while enjoying his wealth?  Cause if it's not - someone tell me.

Which is weird, because the reason people are showing up to this "naughty" movie is the dangerous sex.  Why should we be cheering outwardly when ben-wa balls make an appearance but we're supposed to be inwardly cheering for them to go away...?

By casting BDSM as a manifestation of Grey's melodramatically traumatic past - expanded upon in this movie as somehow tied to his birth mother's death-by-crack and maybe some cigarette burns by her boyfriend - the suggestion is that by properly sexing Christian without handcuffs, Anastasia should "cure" him.  Except - (a) no and (b) she keeps busting out the lightweight BDSM gear and lightly playing along.

So, what is it she wants?  Because there's certainly an argument to be made that Christian is playing the long game here to see all what he can get Anastasia to do, and she's just sorta curious to draft behind what he's done previously while also shaming him with it at every opportunity.

There's also this odd schism in the movie between the exotic apartments, high-end accouterments of the wealthy - and all of it told from the lens of the middle-brow.

Like a CW drama, Christian Grey is a businessman - but what business has he perfected on his own by age 27?  Something about business.  Buying things seems to be the business.  Ana doesn't have the curiosity herself to ask, so we'll never know.

And if one small detail really stuck with me - it was this "cute" moment when - after her great love has escaped a helicopter crash only to walk back into the city, foregoing medical attention and coming straight home - we find out that Ana planned to tell him she would marry him by writing "yes" in an 8th grader's scrawl on the back of a keychain.  It's the kind of thing people say happened at a wedding, presenting it as the cutest thing ever, and you're just thinking:  That is in no way as adorable as they believe it is.

You kind of want Christian to take a beat and have a long think about who he's deciding to partner up with here.  Is this person going to start hanging of Anne Geddes posters in his $15 million dollar loft?  Is he going to be sitting watching reruns of Friends every night over a dinner of Hot Pockets?

Let's get real, real dark for a minute.

A pal (hey, J!) made a pretty keen observation when asking me how the movie was - so let's get topical.

We were discussing how the appeal of the film is certainly about some colorful sex, but the "fairy tale" part is Grey's ridiculous wealthy.  He buys you cars without you asking (I mean, it's super creepy that he does this, but whatever).  He puts computers in gift boxes and takes you out on his yachts.

We just saw hundreds of thousands of women take to the streets - maybe millions - marching to register their displeasure with the election of our new president.  And while the mission of those marches grew, arguably the basis for that march was a message that women had not liked his personal life or policies.  And, in the fall, they had heard tape of a pre-election-cycle president talking about everything he could do and grab because he was a star/ rich.

If Christian Grey were not a billionaire, would this movie have turned out any other way than as a thriller with Anastasia sorry but smarter at the end, Christian dead in her living room, a lot of glass broken, and some awkward memories for Ana to file away about some rough sex she'd had which, in our story, would work as a warning sign of his violent nature which she failed to heed?

Isn't that the sort of thing that makes for a Lifetime movie thriller?

It's a bit of a complication.

If this movie had any tether to reality, how long would it be before the lawsuits started or doe-eyed women started talking to the press?  Or would they?  Would the Grey billions silence them?  Is Christian privileged to use and dispose of women because of his stature?


Again - I am not the target audience for this movie, and I feel absolutely no closer to understanding anything about it.  Maybe there is nothing to understand.  Maybe this is the erotic fantasy du jour for people who like their lattes pumpkin spiced.  Believe me, it could be worse.  But - my friends, if you like this, I guarantee you, there is better content out there for you.  It doesn't need to be this way!

And at least this movie was never exactly boring, even if the story was non-existent, characters terrible, and I want to send in a team of Navy SEALS to rescue Marcia Gay Harden from whatever is happening here.  It's certainly nicely shot, and once I was told they weren't saying Seattle was Vancouver - which Amy had to explain to me - I felt much better.

So help me, I thought they explicitly stated he lived in Vancouver in the first movie.

Look, for me, not for me - there's a lot to unpack here, and in this topsy turvy world we live, knowing that we can see the same thing and come away with very different impressions is something worth noting, I think.  If we're selling fantasies and fairy tales on the screen, for adults, checking out what those fantasies are and why they are can maybe tell us something about ourselves.

I can't say my flights of fancy have taken me to a place where a hunky billionaire would whisk me away for some awkward spanky time and then take me for a ride in his helicopter.   But male fantasies are in no small supply out there, and we like to think we've been disassembling a fair number of those over the years, maybe without the huge question mark over our heads pushing us on to try to understand what makes it work.

Anyhow, I am sick to death of thinking about this movie.  I'm punting it to you.

*I read books about people dressed up as bats jumping off rooftops to beat up criminals.  We've all got our thing we'll buy, I guess.


Groboclown said...

I think you hit it on the nose, that there's way better content for people to read if this is the genre of content they want.

However, I'm afraid that, with the general stigma around this content, this may have been the first "for the masses" work to have gained real public notice, allowing those who want this kind of thing to find it. I know, I know - "it's just a touch away on the Internets", but there's so much low quality work out there, or work that goes into the too-racy areas that it might turn people away. The two major works that I can think of off the time of my head, Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty series, and Pauline Reage's The Story of O, would probably be too hard core.

Also, with all the talk about the book - people on TV were reading snippets and making fun of it - it made for a good cover when people read it. Kind of the hipster "I'm reading it ironically."

But I don't know. The furthest I've learned about it was from the "Gilbert Godfrey audio book" joke ad.

The League said...

When something is a runaway success as this has been, for whatever reason, and I think you're absolutely right as to why it took off, it's worth trying to figure out how it works in the larger social context. If we can do this with cowboy and superhero movies, this sort of fantasy movie needs a review as well. Because if the book is this big of a deal, and the movies have big opening weekends and follow-through, then we should try to get at - beyond the hooting and hollering - got us here and what the characters are telling us. It's one thing for a writer to put themselves out there, and something else when the public eats it up like Sunday afternoon at the Golden Corral.