It usually isn’t fair to leave a movie wishing someone else — anyone! — had directed it. But sometimes we can’t help ourselves. And in the case of Fifty Shades Darker, directed by James Foley, it’s actually a compliment — just not to Foley.
To wish a movie had a better director is to notice the difference between good material that’s been stuck in the wrong hands, which is the case here, and outright bad material that cannot have been helped, which is the Fifty Shades franchise’s reputation to begin with. It’s the difference between recognizing the good trash Fifty Shades Darker, the movie, could have been — a juicy, risky, off-the-rails sexual melodrama of a stripe mainstream adult audiences haven’t seen in years — versus the bland mess it turned out to be. The screenplay, adapted by Niall Leonard from the E.L. James sequel of the same name, was squandered. It has everything a good soap opera needs. There’s stalking, workplace harassment, and abandonment issues. There’s “baby’s first Ben Wa balls.” There’s a climactic bitch slap. There’s a helicopter accident — I still don’t know why.
As full-fledged, Grade-A American trash, Fifty Shades Darker would never have been an exercise in realism or good taste, nor would a sensible audience have demanded as much. As directed by Foley, however, it’s trash that seemingly aspires to class, wherein the extreme psychological contours of this story get flattened into a romance that has about as much bite as the Starbucks playlist–ready songs on its soundtrack.
It didn’t have to be this way. The substance of the movie is 29-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, resuming the role) and his propensity for secrets. And secrets are essential to melodrama. There are a few skeletons in Mr. Grey’s gilt-edged closet, one of which is his reluctantly reconciled girlfriend, Anastasia Steele (the great Dakota Johnson, again), who’d last run away from Christian after a taste of his softcore kink in the first movie. “You were getting off on the pain you inflicted,” she says to her sometimes-sadist boyfriend. “I want you back,” he says. “I’d like to renegotiate terms.” “No rules, no punishments — and no more secrets,” reads the eventual compromise, with all the singsongy sincerity of a playground pact.
They get back together — and Christian makes mistakes. One is his handling of a stalker ex-submissive named Leila, over whom he apparently still has some control. Another is his encouraging a meeting between Anastasia and Elena Lincoln, a.k.a. Christian’s “Mrs. Robinson,” his original dominant, who credits herself with starting it all. (She’s played by a sultry-as-always Kim Basinger.) Now there’s an interesting dynamic — as is the pressure Elena puts on Anastasia, driving her away from Christian.
Christian is lost without Anastasia: Again, these characters are full of surprises. He’s a man caught at an impasse of desires, torn between being the tortured kink master we’re all more or less paying to see, but who’s really self-destructively acting out against trauma of his own, and being the kind of man Anastasia needs him to be — one who can rein it in, who might settle for pizza and ice cream on a Friday night instead of lashes with a leather whip.
Those are the dramatic bells and whistles. But the juicy thing about this series, and what makes me wish Fifty Shades Darker were better, is that it all comes down to power. Look at all the fascinating power plays the movie’s otherwise creaky plot hinges on. There is, firstly, the BDSM, which in these movies has to be more playfully hot than outright provocative — fine. But there’s also the fight Christian and Anastasia have over her financial independence, starting with his suggestion that he may be buying the company she works for, making him her “boss’s boss’s boss.” It’s the kind of thing that’d make her want to quit. “Christian,” she says, “you know I like working. You can’t keep me pent up in your penthouse.” His jealousy, meanwhile, becomes an issue when she has to go on a work trip with her boss — since when is Mr. Grey the clingy boyfriend? At its best, the movie makes these shifts in control feel like psychological confusion. One minute Mr. Grey dominates, the next he’s on his hands and knees. You can trace the limits of his power the way Anastasia does, with lipstick, on the bounds of his chest and core, which are riddled with cigarette burns, outlining the parts of Mr. Grey’s body she cannot touch. The revelation of the scene is that there’s reasoning, and a certain powerlessness, to his boundaries.
Leaving the theater, I couldn’t help but wonder who would’ve brought out all of these rough edges and nuances in the writing. A true-to-trash attitude would not only have heightened the latent intelligence of the movie by a mile, it would also have made it more fun to watch. Pedro Almodóvar would’ve seen it as, fundamentally, a story about the women in Mr. Grey’s life — which it is — and would’ve heightened our sense of the inner lives of Anastasia; Elena; Grey’s mother and adopted mother; and Leila, his ex-submissive, accordingly. An Almódovar cast if ever.
Meanwhile, Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, the directors of TV’s The Girlfriend Experience, might have harped on the Fifty Shades franchise’s overbearing sense of transaction. They might’ve given us an Anastasia who, like their Christine Reade, navigates Mr. Grey’s terms so skillfully we can’t help but become more curious about who she is. Sofia Coppola might’ve seen, in the dark secrets looming just beyond Mr. Grey’s public persona, a chance to tell a story about the alluring toxicity of celebrity — or at least a chance to have a soundtrack full of synthy bangers. Nancy Meyers would’ve reveled in the stuff: Ben Wa ball sales would’ve skyrocketed and the lush interiors of the characters’ homes would’ve felt like a part of the story. Lee Daniels would have — for better or worse — made much more of the line: “My birth mother died when I was 4. She was an addict — crack. You can fill in the blanks.” Sam Taylor-Johnson, who directed Fifty Shades of Grey, would have made a passable movie.
It could’ve gone anywhere. That it goes nowhere is the fault of Foley, whose camera seems to find only plain drama when the moment is bursting with the kind of grotesque, out-of-whack, heightened reality a more imaginative director would milk for all its unlikely glory. Dornan and Johnson are both strong actors, but with Foley’s dulled sensibility, Johnson practically disappears behind her bangs and Dornan’s perennially unshaven Mr. Grey comes off as a normie loser. A braver director, sensing these shifts in power, might have reimagined these characters as a modern femme fatale and her confounded lover, à la Basic Instinct, rather than as a mopey guy and his hot-and-cold, “Kink is OK I guess” girlfriend.
I’ll give Fifty Shades Darker this much, at least: The sex scenes are OK. They should be more than OK, but at the very least they channel an idea or two about his prowess and her pleasure — and Johnson, to her credit, plays every sex scene like a rite of self-discovery, giving off the impression of a woman experiencing these pleasures for the first time. That doesn’t make up for the fact that all we see of Christian’s body, besides his abs, is a split second of gyrating butt crack, whereas Anastasia practically bears all — just who are these movies for, anyway? Nor can Foley resist marring his sex scenes with Coldplay covers and grating coffeeshop R&B. The moments, despite being a little hot, come off as silly. It’s awfully sweet. Shouldn’t it be a little nasty?