To throughly enjoy the “Fifty Shades” franchise, one must first understand that, yes, the films have about the cinematic clout of a Hallmark Christmas movie airing in the middle of summer, and second, that sometimes the trashiest movies are the most fun.
Before “Fifty Shades Darker” hits theaters nationwide on Friday, reviews for the second installment in the adventures of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and that hot dude who likes to whip her sometimes (Jamie Dornan) have come trickling in.
This time around, “Glengarry Glen Ross” director James Foley takes the reins from Sam Taylor-Johnson with a script from author E. L. James’ husband, Niall Leonard.
Critics can’t seem to decide whether the film is a “trashtastic masterpiece” or “lovey-dovey hoohah” disguised in bondage gear. Read a collection of some of the most brutally hilarious reviews below and decide for yourself. (Psst, we’ll see you at the midnight showing on opening night, girl.)
James Foley’s “Fifty Shades Darker,” the second big-screen outing adapting E.L. James’s best-selling S&M fairy tale, goes rather in the other direction, replacing most of the first installment’s talk of master/servant dynamics and contractually delineated sex play with more lovey-dovey hoohah than most self-respecting rom-coms are willing to deliver ... A concluding installment is already en route; expect diminishing returns every Valentine’s Day.
This new one, from journeyman director James Foley, leans into what we all want when we buy a ticket for the best-selling smut novel with its roots in Twilight fan-fiction. This movie is a trash masterpiece. Johnson at first comes on like the spitting image of her mother Melanie Griffith, but quickly shrugs that off to become her own performer. She is absolutely and without question the real deal. You won’t believe just how dumb the dialogue is in “Fifty Shades Darker,” and, yes, that’s even if you’ve seen the first one. Still, Johnson makes it work. With anyone else in the lead, these films would be condemned and sent to Guantanamo. Instead, we’ve got the greatest Valentine’s Day movie in years.
Johnson still hasn’t found the right role to showcase her skills because this surely isn’t it. Dornan is quite talented — as anybody who’s watched the British TV show “The Fall” can attest — but he inexplicably loses his mojo in these movies. Together? Well, any pair of fish lying next to each other at Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market have more chemistry. After one round of carnal pleasure, Christian asks Ana why she waited until 21 to lose her virginity to him. Her answer is that she was looking for someone “exceptional” who could measure up to the kind of men Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte wrote about. She can do better, and really, so can we.
“Darker” is strangely plotless and devoid of any real tension. Any actual plot points — spurned stalkers, creepy coworkers, helicopter crashes — are immediately resolved, often to be forgotten minutes later. There’s never even any question over whether these two beautiful bland people will end up together in the end, seeing as their only real personality trait is that they’re both inexplicably drawn to one another. Kim Basinger shows up for a while as Christian’s former lover, adding a little bit of cheesy, villainous flair to the whole thing. (One theatrical confrontation between her and Christian’s mother, Marcia Gay Harden, is a reminder of how much fun “Darker” could have been if it didn’t take itself so seriously.)
We care not a lick for these beautiful people, nor for their future together, as teased in a glistening mini-trailer for next year’s “Fifty Shades Freed” halfway through the closing credits. Yet to find yourself rooting for their union purely because they’re both so damn hot is to realize that “Fifty Shades Darker” has worked its shallow magic on you. “I was being romantic and then you go and distract me with your kinky f**kery,” Anastasia chides Christian at one point — to which the audience can only conclude that, with all due respect to her dreams of Austen and Brontë, he’s got the better idea.
Johnson and Dornan do have a little more heat between them this time around, whether as a result of Foley’s direction or just through familiarity. As a more mature and confident Ana, Johnson once again steals the show, although you have to feel a little sorry for Dornan, who has basically nothing to work with character-wise ... The sex scenes — which do get kinky eventually, but very mildly so — are similarly brusque, as if they can’t wait to get this shit over, either. But the plot just keeps coming, all of it driven by the romantic idea of the redemptive power of love. It’s a female-driven fantasy, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not toxic. And God help the poor woman who believes it.
Even if the ongoing saga of Anastasia Steele is nothing but wish fulfillment, why should adult female audiences be deprived a vicarious shot at career advancement, gorgeous lingerie and a billionaire underwear model who’s fond of what the young hero of “20th Century Women” would refer to as “direct clitoral stimulation”? However, if you think that those same audiences also deserve characters with any depth and plotting that relies upon the presence of multi-dimensional human beings, “Fifty Shades Darker” falls short. It’s nice that the two photogenic leads are treating sex like a pleasurable activity rather than an onerous chore in this second entry, but overall, the film plays like an un-asked-for collaboration between the Hallmark and Playboy Channels.