In a country where nearly half of voting Americans were able to convince themselves to trust their vote for the nation's leadership to an alleged serial sexual harasser, at minimum, and one-dimensional reality television star with a thrift store political slogan and leadership skills more in line with cult leadership than foreign relations, I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise that that very same America would somehow find themselves embracing the literary drivel turned cinematic wasteland known as Fifty Shades Darker.
The novels by E.L. James are sort of like bad Harlequin romance novels meeting up with working drafts of softcore porn. The worlds of Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) aren't titillating or appealing or sexy or anything else you might want them to be. There's quite literally nothing in Fifty Shades Darker that you can't find down the hallway in the upstairs apartment of that couple who are always fighting, throwing furniture at each other, making threats, having police called, having five minutes of make-up sex then going through the cycle over and over and over again.
Fifty Shades Darker isn't love. It's abuse. Pure and simple. Of course, it doesn't help I suppose that we already know that even offscreen that Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan don't actually care for one another and there's not an ounce of chemistry between them. In a film like Secretary, for example, James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal at least made us believe in the relationship even if we didn't quite understand the kink. Here? The kink ain't kinky and the relationship is a farce.
There's more sensuality in Taylor Swift's duet with Zayn than there is at any moment of Fifty Shades Darker's nearly two-hour running time. For the record, I despise Taylor Swift's duet with Zayn.
Fifty Shades Darker picks up not long after the events from Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia is now single and working for Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), whose abusive ways are never in doubt and we're not even remotely surprised when they get directed toward Anastasia. When Anastasia runs into Christian at a friend's photography exhibit, he begs her to return. Of course.
Of course, she does.
The events that follow, from the arrival of a psycho former submissive (Bella Heathcote) to a laughably contrived helicopter crash, are designed to convince us that Anastasia and Christian are meant to be.
As was hinted at in Fifty Shades of Grey and is given even more weight in the novels, Christian is an abuse survivor and it seems that the entirety of Fifty Shades Darker is designed to make us believe this justifies his obsessively controlling, paranoid and downright abusive behavior toward Anastasia is justified. It's as if she's painted in a more positive light because she endures his seemingly relentless psychological games and physical intimidation. There's even a feeble attempt, or at least it seems, to compare and contrast Christian's abusive ways with those of Jack Hyde, who clearly does not care about Anastasia one iota.
Hey, ya know? At least Christian actually cares about her. He might even, well, um, lo... her. You know what I'm trying to say, right?
James Foley is a gifted director responsible for the likes of At Close Range, Glengarry Glen Ross and other films actually worth watching. He has a nice visual touch, which occasionally gets put on display here, but in taking over for Sam Taylor-Johnson he's brought the second film in the three-film series to a screeching halt. Foley, for the record, is also directing the final film, Fifty Shades Freed.
The biggest problem with Fifty Shades Darker, other than the complete crap source material, is that Johnson and Dornan simply have zero in the way of chemistry and there's not an ounce of sexiness that unfolds in the film. Neither Johnson nor Dornan is strong enough as a performer to fake their way through an absence of chemistry, though Johnson at least has a few fleeting moments to shine when she's sharing the screen with Kim Basinger, as the dom who introduced Christian to the lifestyle, and Marcia Gay Harden, as Christian's mother.
It was well known that best-selling author E.L. James, that was painful to say, clashed with both Sam Taylor-Johnson and the first film's writer, Kelly Marcel. Both are gone. Niall Leonard, you might know him as E.L. James's husband, has taken over writing duties and seems to have been under direction to strip any of the stilted yet welcome humor from the first film. This time around, we're stuck with a sort of faux classicism that never works, never feels genuine and is so laughably absurd that I'm not sure I'd ever want to meet the man or woman who finds Fifty Shades Darker to be sexy, sensual or even remotely entertaining.
Fifty Shades Darker stumbles toward trying to convince us that it's more fem-centric. Johnson's Anastasia has a little more control this time around, though it's constantly shaded by Christian's relentlessly controlling behavior from keeping track of her bank account, to giving her a phone so he can keep track of her calls, to buying the company she works for and, well, the list goes on and on.
At some point, I expected Christian to show up on screen with a "Make Love Great Again" hat.
That doesn't happen.
At its very core, Fifty Shades Darker is supposed to be about the redemptive power of love. It's a worthy theme, yet it's a theme that gets lost in the clumsy writing of E.L. James, the timid storyline that unfolds and in a relationship that never feels remotely genuine.
To call Fifty Shades Darker entertaining is utterly absurd. The film, hiding behind this ridiculous idea of redemptive love, does nothing but perpetuate the sexualization and abuse of women and, as well, of men. The film doesn't celebrate redemptive love or even a mutually satisfying decision for sexual experimentation. Instead, it recklessly and frivolously references these ideas while portraying the kind of relationship toxicity that leads to sexual violence, domestic violence and other forms of abuse. Christian isolates Anastasia, controls her and her environment, utilizes intimidation and exploitation, displays extreme possessiveness, avoids mutuality and dominates to such a degree that there is no safe word or safe space. Fifty Shades of Grey, while trying to convince us that "he will change" fumbles such a theme each step of the way.
In some ways, rather ironically, Fifty Shades Darker is a lot like a couple of the Kendrick Brothers' faith-based films like Fireproof where the man is allowed to abuse, manipulate, and fail and it falls upon the woman to endure it all, fix everything then be grateful in those fleeting moments that he's actually good to her.
We're in a time when thrift store slogans pass as innovative ideas and faux machismo passes for strength and leadership. This is true not just with one person or one politician, but seems to be a recurring theme in the American way of politics. We've detoured away from authentic strength and genuine leadership. These are themes that play out in Fifty Shades Darker and they simply aren't entertaining. They're disturbing, frightening and they're victimizing for those who've experienced sexual violence, domestic violence or who simply are looking to learn healthy boundaries, healthy relationships, real strength and real leadership.
Fifty Shades Darker is easily one of the year's worst films, yet what's even more jarring is that as the closing credits roll it's impossible not to think that it all feels so incredibly familiar.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic