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Can Dakota Johnson Save ‘Fifty Shades Darker’?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Tuesday morning saw the release of the first trailer for Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to 2015’s sex opposite-of-romp, Fifty Shades of Grey. Dakota Johnson was the best part of that movie. But is she good enough to carry the troubled sequel? Here, Ringer staffers debate.

Lindsay Zoladz: Dakota Johnson has a very expressive “I’m totally done with this right now” face. We saw it used to masterful effect on the red carpet of the 2015 Oscars, when she had a gloriously passive-aggressive gosh, Mom fight with Melanie Griffith in front of millions of people. And we also saw it on display in Fifty Shades of Grey, because roughly five minutes into filming she seemed to recognize how ridiculous the script was, and began transmitting a “do you believe this” vibe directly to the audience. That was the most amusing thing about the movie: the utter disconnection between Johnson’s canny self-awareness and Jamie Dornan’s earnest commitment to this goofy-ass movie that they are somehow going to stretch over two more installments. (Wait, there are going to be three movies? Seriously?) So the only thing that can save Fifty Shades Darker (I still can’t believe they greenlit that title for a movie about the whitest people of all time) is if Johnson commits even more fully to this meta-performance and starts mouthing things like “Oh my god, has no one on this set seen Eyes Wide Shut,” “haha I always forget his name is Jamie Dornan, too,” and “Oh my god, we still have to make one more of these?” directly into the camera.

Sam Donsky: Second-wave Dakota Johnson is finally here. Don’t get me wrong: First-wave Dakota Johnson was good — very good. Some highlights included: being so rude to her own mom that it became news; finding an “are you on steroids — like, seriously, where do you get the strength”–level gear of not giving a shit about Jamie Dornan; temporarily (just kidding, it’s permanent) usurping Dakota Fanning in the Dakota Wars; openly disdaining Shakespeare, the word “y’all,” and the notion that Johnny Depp is still hot, in a single calendar year; having the sentence “She took down her Facebook profile, because she didn’t like being on it,” in her IMDb trivia section; stealing scenes from Tilda Swinton; and blurting out, mid-interview, “Milking a cow is funny as fuck.” Like I said, it was a really good wave.

But now it’s time for what’s next. Fifty Shades Darker can be saved, there’s no question — and it can be saved for one reason only: We as a society are finally ready to stop pretending that Dakota Johnson is “surprisingly good” as Anastasia Steele. And we are ready, instead, to accept the truth: that Dakota Johnson … is just a genius. She’s too talented not to succeed. And she probably hates you too much to fail.

Amanda Dobbins: Dakota Johnson was the best part of the first Fifty Shades. That does not mean that Dakota Johnson is a good actress, or a compelling presence, or anything other than a third-generation Hollywood star with unbrushed hair and a bad attitude. (Please spare me the “shade” “jokes”; that red carpet performance was just whining.) Her original Fifty Shades performance worked because she was in on the joke — the slightly goofball, “Can you believe this beautifully-shot nonsense?” stand-in for the audience. The tricky thing with being above a movie is that you lose all credibility when you cash the check for the sequel. (And you get negative credibility when that sequel is written by the novelist’s husband.) Dakota took the check. Pass.

Sam Schube: Dakota Johnson will be the saving grace of Fifty Shades Darker. Do you know why? Because, in the two years that will have elapsed between Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequel, she kept busy. She learned how to sail:

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

That alone would be an excellent use of her between-movies hiatus! But Dakota Johnson didn’t stop with waterborne vehicles. Dakota Johnson memorized the conversion formula from knots to miles per hour. (Just kidding: Dakota Johnson knows that it’s a fool’s errand to compare land and sea speeds.) Dakota Johnson learned how to pilot a fleet of Audis through a parking garage at excessive speed, too:

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Dakota Johnson is back, and she’s in the driver’s and/or captain’s seat. Buckle up, punks.

Allison P. Davis: I don’t particularly like Dakota Johnson, but I think she got the bum end of the sub-dom arrangement here. How are you supposed to convincingly play a young woman in the throes of a libido-shattering sexual awakening when your male lead is pretty little Jamie Dornan? I realize that some people find him “attractive” or even more mysteriously “highly smashable,” but remember the first installment: Jamie as Christian Grey was wooden, stiff (and not in the exciting way), and about as sexual as the innocuous pretty boys people crush on in junior high school because they don’t know what sex actually is yet.

To Johnson’s credit, she gave the steamiest performance she could given the circumstances — but there was no danger, no sensuality, no male frontal nudity, no attraction. They had the awkward chemistry of cousins, forced to take each other to prom. Therefore watching them pump away with nipple clamps and gag balls became very uncomfortable — which was at least a welcome break from boring. (Who can make a gag ball boring? Oh, right: Dornan.) The best hope for Fifty Shades Darker is to give Dakota a sex friend with a deviant streak that believably rivals Last Tango in Paris–Brando.

Some suggestions:

  • Joshua Jackson: He has lots of tortured sex on The Affair. Solid proof that watching him sort through emotional baggage is just as pleasurable as watching him have sex, bare-assed, constantly.
  • Michael Fassdong (née Fassbender): The man has earned the nickname.
  • Tom Hardy: Let’s play two truths and a lie: Tom Hardy is good with a spanking paddle. Tom Hardy is incredibly attractive. Tom Hardy could bang you on a private jet. Can’t figure out which one is the lie, huh? My point exactly.
  • Jonah Hill: I do not judge you; please do not judge me.
  • Idris Elba: I think she meant Fifty Shades Darker in a literal sense.

Dakota Johnson should not have to save a movie on her own.

K. Austin Collins: Set Dakota Johnson aside for a moment. Because I’d like to think Fifty Shades Darker doesn’t need saving. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t — the first was that much fun, sleeker than it had to be, and with a lot more ripped from the Fincher, Soderbergh, and (Sofia) Coppola playbooks than we probably deserved. I’m not even talking about the sex: That movie made me want stuff. It made me want to make enough money to have a kink closet I’d probably never use, just to have it, the way some people collect books merely for what they look like stacked on their tall shelves.

But we don’t live in an ideal world; if we did, Sam Taylor-Johnson would be back to direct, not that James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross, Confidence) is any slouch. It’s impossible that the sequel will surprise and delight me as much as the first did — you only get to feel that once — but I can dream, can’t I?

Also, I like Dakota Johnson. This’ll be fine.