“Darker”? 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. Taking the series over from Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose Fifty Shades of Grey earned jeers alongside its $570 million worldwide haul in 2015, Foley has the job of introducing some external threats to the unlikely coupling of Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia Steele and Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey. But he and screenwriter Niall Leonard can hardly milk enough novelty out of these new villains to win back fans who felt burned by the first film. A concluding installment is already en route; expect diminishing returns every Valentine’s Day.
As the story begins, Anastasia has left Christian after an experience in his sex dungeon that, she felt, showed her the depths of meanness hidden within his S&M practice. (News flash: Man who gets off on making women submit to him has issues.) She has found a job at a publishing house, where a new authority figure (Eric Johnson’s Jack Hyde) hardly hides his sexual interest in her. But nobody compares to Christian, who has soon begged his way to a second chance and — ah, how the tables turn! — told Ana he wants a real relationship, with no NDAs or dietary guidelines binding her.
Big-budget Skinemax, as dull as the first installment.
Which essentially drains Fifty Shades of whatever claim it had to the outre, however badly that claim was staked in James’ books and the first film. This time, when there’s spanking to be done, it’s at Ana’s request — and not because doors have opened in her psyche and she feels a disturbing need to submit, but because, duh, it feels good.
Leonard and Foley offer enough semi-naked sex scenes here to prove that quantity is no substitute for chemistry. Both leads are attractive and look good without clothes, but the roteness of their bulge-flexing intimacies is such that when, near the film’s end, the movie showed off Mr. Dornan’s physique in a gym scene, women at Wednesday’s preview screening were openly laughing at the contrivance.
There was a lot of snickering at that screening, in fact, though some scenes inexplicably slid by without mockery. Where were the guffaws when Ana described cunnilingus as “kinky f––ery,” as if it weren’t an integral part of modern-day, plain-vanilla lovemaking? Where were the scornful hoots when Christian, in response to Ana’s comment, “I didn’t know you had a place in Aspen,” quipped “I have a lot of places”? Especially in this Trumpian era, can we not at last openly mock such one-percenter smugness?
But of course, the desire to be swept away by Prince Bucksalot is more central to the Fifty Shades brand than any curiosity about non-mainstream sexual gratification. Darker hardly hides this, and gets into trouble when it pretends not to care about Christian Grey’s riches. How can the filmmakers keep a straight face when they have Anastasia complaining about Christian’s desire to “own” her and then, barely two scenes later, show her agog at a closet full of designer gowns and lingerie? Blindfolds and tasteful wrist restraints are just this year’s superficial twist on the Cinderella story. Fifty Shades may take pains not to let Anastasia actually accept anything as gauche as cash for the body she hands over so willingly to her prince, as Julia Roberts did in Pretty Woman. But it’s hard to pretend this represents any meaningful step toward a future feminists can be proud of.
Production company: Universal Pictures
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Kim Basinger, Luke Grimes, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Eric Johnson, Rita Ora, Victor Rasuk
Director: James Foley
Screenwriter: Niall Leonard
Producers: Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, E.L. James, Marcus Viscidi
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: Nelson Coates
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Editor: Richard Francis-Bruce
Composer: Danny Elfman
Casting directors: Laray Mayfield, Julie Schubert
Rated R, 117 minutes